Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Easter

This week I'm at St. Francis Church in Holden - where I served as rector from 1998 - 2013. The readings for this Fourth Sunday of Easter can be found here. Although most sermons this week of "Good Shepherd Sunday" will end up focusing on the Good Shepherd, I try not to miss opportunities to preach on the Book of Revelation, especially when I'm among old friends.

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You cannot step into the same river twice. Time, like an ever-flowing stream really does bear all our years away. It has been nearly three years since I left this congregation as your fifth rector. After a pretty average-length interim period, Pat has settled in as your sixth rector. You are finding a new normal; and so am I.

Because a congregation is a living organism, and because this one is more alive than most, it means there are people here I’ve never even met before. That’s a good thing. And there are others who were here and are now among the saints triumphant, singing their songs of alleluia on the other side of the veil. While we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.

Whenever I run into people from St. Francis (and since I live just 6.5 miles down Salisbury Street in Worcester it does happen from time to time) almost always they want to tell me two things. First, “we love Pat. Pat’s great.” And second, “we miss you.”

My spiritual director likes to remind me that it is possible to have more than one emotion at the same time. So let me say to all of you: I love Pat, too. I could not have chosen better if I’d had the chance and this diocese and this parish are truly blessed to have Pat and Carol here in Holden. And Hathy and I and our boys – well not really boys so much anymore – but we are all well. I love my new job and I’m grateful to this parish for leaving such a mark on me that has prepared me to do this work. And we miss you all too.

Thank you to Pat for the invitation to be here and I also need to say thank you for the incredibly agile ministry of Karen Safstrom who has had to figure out over these past four years or so how to work with two Episcopal priests and one Lutheran pastor through this time of transition. She has done that with grace and skill and wisdom as you all know.Thanks be to God!

Time, like an ever-flowing stream, most definitely bears all our years away. You have changed, and I have changed and that is a good thing. But here we are on this Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday. As I step into this pulpit, my hope is that this is not a trip down memory lane but a way for me to reconnect in my capacity as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, as Canon to the Ordinary in this diocese.

For those of you who do remember my time here, you will no doubt recall I have retained some Methodist tendencies as a preacher. I hope someone gave Pat a heads up, because that is one thing that has not changed. (Sometimes I’ve been clocked doing twenty in a fifteen-minute zone.) But if you are willing to not hold these introductions against me and wait to start the clock now we should be just fine and I think within the acceptable Episcopal range for sermons. Ready?

Imagine a world where there is incredible uncertainty about the future. And yet even in the midst of all that uncertainty, there is tremendous denial. Not just personal denial, but deep-seated corporate, social, political and economic denial. It feels as if even the so-called experts will not see what is before their very eyes, or heed the voices of common sense.

Imagine a once-mighty nation where democratic ideals once took hold. But now that nation seems adrift, lacking in visionaries and prophets and dreamers. What remains is a sometimes desperate attempt to hold onto power and control.

But the problems go deeper than politics or the economy. The moral fabric of this society is coming apart at the seams. It feels like there is no longer any sense of “right” and “wrong.” Injustice seems to be the norm, and violence is taken for granted as part of daily life. The dignity of every human being is not the cultural norm.

Now in this social context, imagine a Church comprised mostly of well-intentioned people who are without a clear sense of purpose or mission. They aren’t sure what to do. While they are to be commended for their “patient endurance” and for acts of charity, they have seemingly abandoned their commitment to love boldly in the name of Jesus.; to follow him the way of the cross. Truth be told they have a hard time loving even each other, not to mention their neighbors and their enemies. They have become complacent, asleep, and lukewarm; unsure about what, if anything, they can do to make a difference even locally. They feel powerless.

While there are a few exceptions, most Christians in this context are not being persecuted for their faith. In fact the problem is that their conformity to the world around them is so complete that there is very little to distinguish them from their neighbors, and therefore little for the authorities to vilify and persecute. If charged with being Christians, there is little evidence to convict them! On those occasions when someone does take a stand for what they believe that’s counter to the conventional wisdom, they are more apt to be harassed or ridiculed for failing to conform to social norms and expectations than they are to be persecuted.

The society I’m describing, of course, is the Roman Empire at the turn of the first century. You knew that right? It was a time of tremendous social upheaval. Under Emperor Domitian, the Roman Empire was a mere shadow of the glory days of the Republic, the glory days of the Roman Senate and the engineering genius that built that incredible infrastructure that connected the ancient world. Thinkers like Cicero and Virgil were distant memories. 

The Church that I’ve been describing is located in one of the provinces of the empire, in Asia Minor—what we would call Turkey today. We know something of their struggles by reading one of the most difficult books in all the Bible to interpret, the Greek name of which is the Apocalypse or in English, “Revelation.” (Singular, not plural; NOT Revelations!) The congregations to whom this vision is addressed are in Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and Thyatira and Sardis and Philadelphia and Laodicea; they are described collectively as I’ve already mentioned—as well-intentioned and patiently enduring tough times, but lacking a sense of passion and a commitment to making disciples. This Revelation of John is in a wake-up call that paints a picture of what genuine fidelity might look like in the context of a dying empire.

Partly because of that social and political context and partly because of the genre of literature it is a part of, the Revelation of John is heavily laden with metaphorical language and symbols, a kind of “code language.” Cracking the code, though, isn’t like translating from Morse code. The challenge isn’t about finding what the number “666” means, or the word “Babylon” means as if those had one-to-one correlations in some distant future. Seeing and hearing this message has more to do with where we stand. It’s about getting ourselves into the right place. There is much talk in this book about “seeing” and “hearing” and at least in this way it very much echoes the teaching ministry of Jesus. Those who wish to understand it need “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” I think of that unforgettable scene in “The Dead Poet’s Society” when the teacher played by Robin Williams has his students standing on desks, challenging their perspective and inviting and cajoling them to take notice of the world from another angle.

None other than the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer exhorted the Church in his day to “be communities able to hear the Apocalypse.” He suggested that the way to do that is to stand with those who suffer violence and injustice. The problem is that in spite of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and outcast, the Church throughout its history has been prone to forget that part of the gospel. I’m not talking about acts of charity, but rather of trying to see the world from the downside up. To see what it looks like from an overcrowded prison or homeless shelter or refugee camp or a farm for ex-prisoners in Oakham or a village in El Salvador.

Visionaries almost always stand on the edges, at the peripheries. When we risk standing with those who suffer violence and injustice, we begin to see and hear things we would otherwise not be able to see or hear from our normal places of privilege and comfort. When we accompany those who live on the edges, we put ourselves into places where we can hear the Apocalypse, places where we are changed for good.

So the seer who wrote the Apocalypse stands in such a place—at the periphery of the Roman Empire, on a tiny little island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor called Patmos. He writes as a Christian who dreams of a Church where Easter faith is practiced on a daily basis. He imagines a Church where people dream again and hope again and work for justice and peace—a Church that knows what it means to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. He shares what he sees with strange images, images made even stranger in the intervening 2000 years since they were first written down. Yet what he sees and then describes for his readers in the seventh chapter of this Apocalypse remains fresh even to this day, and I believe it still has power to heal and to transform and to invigorate the Church of the 21st century for mission. If we dare to look and to listen, then we too might be prodded and jarred from complacency to become a more focused and more missional Church, to take up our crosses to follow Jesus.

When John looks he sees a great multitude, a multitude which no one could count. That in itself is a word of hope to beleaguered congregations in every age, congregations which may feel burned out and worn out and perhaps isolated, or feel that they must do it all. In that “great multitude” of disciples, that no one could count!—there is so much to ponder. But at the very least it is a reminder that we are not alone. We are a part of something much bigger than we usually realize. This is probably the single most important thing I’ve been learning since I last stood here among you as your rector. This is a wonderful parish but it is just a small part of a small diocese that is part of a small denomination that is part of a global communion that is part of a global, ecumenical Church that is part of this great cloud of witnesses, this fellowship divine, across time and space. And I love Holden and I love living in central Massachusetts but notice, this great cloud of witnesses is so much more diverse: they come from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and they speak many languages.
It is the Lamb at the center that defines who we are. Always. As parishes, as dioceses, as denominations. Not nation states or flags, not creeds, not socio-economic class or skin-color or sexual orientation. It is the Lamb who unites this pluralistic community into One Body that still continues to sing the song: “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” It is this Lamb whom these saints worship day and night. It is this Lamb – also known as the Good Shepherd – whom we come here to worship as we gather to break and share the bread. Not Gordon, nor Rich, not Pat – not even the amazing Karen. But Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain.

The promise remembered is the promise foretold. And it still has the power to enliven the Church for mission. Juxtaposed with this image where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching heat and no more tears are the images of our world: images of starving children who need to be fed and of communities like Flint Michigan where clean water is not a given; a world of famine and terrorist attacks and war. The juxtaposition of these images is a call to you and me to join God’s mission of wiping away tears.  

No matter how tired or weak or confused we may feel in a world that seems as if it’s gone stark raving mad some days, we must never lose hope. We are part of a much larger multitude. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses. By keeping our eyes open and by listening for his voice and by standing with the most vulnerable on the fringes of society, we have a chance to be the kind of community that is able to stand with people like Bonhoeffer in order to “hear the Apocalypse.” And in our hearing, there is always the chance that we may also become doers of that Word as well, until we proclaim with our lives what we profess with our lips. 

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