Sermon for Holy Cross Day

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

The Rev’d Molly James
     Dean of Formation, Episcopal Church in Connecticut
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2017

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a privilege to be with you all this evening. I am grateful to Fr. Stephen for the invitation. It is always a joy to be a part of liturgy in this beautiful and holy space. It is a particular joy to be with you on this night as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. It may sound strange, but this is actually one of my favorite feasts of the Church year. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I love Christmas and Easter. Of course I find Holy Week to be tremendously meaningful. It is more that today feels a like a more personal and intimate feast day. It is like Holy Week in miniature without all the logistics and details we clergy have to keep track of then. It is a day that is a real gift. It is a day to contemplate what the Cross means in our own lives.

For me this day has real, personal significance. When I was in the midst of my own discernment process for ordination, I was asked what moment in our Lord’s life I connected with most deeply. My answer was immediate: the Cross. I was 22, and I was only a few years removed from a battle with bone cancer. It mattered a great deal to me that our Lord and Savior knows the fullness of the human experience, including the realities of pain and suffering. My intimate connection with God came through confronting my own mortality and knowing that God knew exactly what I was going through.

I know I am not the only one for whom the realities of the crucifixion hold deep meaning. No doubt many of us here have had profound experiences of personal pain and suffering. No doubt, like so many of the notable Christian theologians and mystics, we have come to the realization that God’s presence can often be most deeply felt in the midst of those challenging experiences. Profound experiences of suffering have a way of narrowing our vision. We realize how many things in life are more superficial or insignificant. The mundane distractions of daily life fade away, and we are left with what really matters: our relationship with God and with those around us. The experience of illness or profound loss can take away so much, but as St. Paul, so eloquently reminds us, there is nothing in life, not even death, that can separate us from the love of God. And it is so often in those crucible moments of our lives that we see the love of God most fully and feel it most deeply in our own hearts.

That is the truth of the Cross. The Cross shows us the depth of God’s love for us. God loves us so very deeply that God is willing to give of God’s self, even to the point of death. This is a profound reality, and it is often the pathway to deeper relationship with God. There is, however, an important caveat to be made here.

While I absolutely believe that suffering is an avenue to deepen our connection to God, that does not mean that suffering is a good in and of itself or that it should be sought out. Our Collect today asks that we might “take up our Cross” and follow Christ. That phrase deserves a little unpacking. And our readings help us to do that. Our readings, particularly the Epistle from Philippians and John’s Gospel remind us that love and self-giving generosity are at the heart of the Cross. They remind us too that we are called to be children of the light. God does not wish for us to experience pain or suffering. We must remember that Jesus came so that we might have LIFE, and have it abundantly.

Unfortunately, there is a strand in our Christian tradition that has said that since suffering is a way to God, we should seek it out (note the monastic traditions of self-deprivation or even self-harm). Or perhaps even worse is the way the Church has used the glorification of suffering to promote oppression. Sadly,there is a legacy of the Church saying to those on the margins or those who are oppressed that they should accept their current reality as their “cross to bear” and to find consolation in the fact that suffering brings us closer to God.

One of my favorite theologians, is a Roman Catholic sister from Brazil named Ivone Gebara. She is a feminist theologian who is deeply critical of the Church for the ways in which it has used the Cross to perpetuate those on the margins of society, particularly women. Gebara helps us to look at the reality of suffering with an important critical lens. When we encounter suffering in our lives, our own or others, we must ask an essential question: is this suffering endemic to the human experience (such as illness or a natural disaster) or is this suffering the result of injustice? If it is endemic, then we must learn to live with it, and it is here that we can be grateful for the gift of feelings God’s presence most abundantly in the midst of suffering. If, on the other hand, the suffering we have encountered is the result of injustice then we followers of Jesus are called to fight injustice.

There is far too much injustice in our world today, whether it is the economic injustice of the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the rise of hate speech and hate crimes against individuals for their gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnic identity. Too many of our sisters and brothers are suffering. We are called to take action and to speak out against injustice wherever we find it.

So I hope that this Holy Cross day will be a day of comfort and inspiration for all of us. I hope we can find comfort, particularly any of us who may in the midst of our own trials and tribulations, in the profound truth that God knows our suffering and God is present with us even in our most painful moments. And I hope that we will also be inspired, particularly those of us who are in positions of power and privilege, to fight against injustice. I hope that we will be inspired to stand with those on the margins, and to realize that if we have any cross to bear in life it is the hard and holy work of realizing God’s dream of justice and life abundant for all people.

AMEN.

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Who is welcome?

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Who is welcome?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017

When I was young person growing up in a small town in Georgia, most of my peers, most of my male peers, loved American football.  Not professional football, mind you, but college ball--UGA, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia Tech--the big land grant universities that had big athletic programs and football teams.  My father had played baseball in college and, frankly, we just never were interested in football in my family.  As a small, scrawny, bookish boy, I didn’t play football with my friends--I tended to play softball with my family in the back garden or tennis with friends at the town court--but I never learned to play football.  I was so out of the loop with regard to understanding football that, one weekend, my parents (who also weren’t really interested in football) took my sister and me to a home game at UGA--the University of Georgia.  We checked a book out of the library to read up on the rules so that we’d be a little clearer about what was going on.  I remember loving the band, being excited about seeing Uga, the bulldog equivalent of Handsome Dan here in New Haven, and being vaguely interested in whether or not the Bulldogs were winning, but I just had no interest in actually playing football--in chasing a pigskin ball down the field and crashing into other players.  It just wasn’t my thing.  And so, in a town where football was practically a second religion, I was one of the odd kids out who didn’t play the sport.

It was fine, generally speaking, that I didn’t play football.  I played tennis, which I was incredibly bad at because I couldn’t see the ball; I tried to play basketball, until a coach kindly suggested that perhaps basketball wasn’t my highest calling.  And all of that was, generally speaking, okay.  Except that, in my small school, the physical education program was a little secondary to the athletics program, and, for eight grade, one of our units was weight training in the varsity football weight room.  At the same time that the varsity football team was using the weight room.

As a small, scrawny, not-football-playing kid, I can only tell you that I have never felt more out of place than in the varsity football weight room.  Now, no one told me that I was in the wrong place, or that I didn’t belong.  But I definitely got the sense that I was in the wrong place.  I didn’t feel right there.

I know what it means to feel out of place, unwelcome, in a particular situation. Maybe you do, too. And that’s why, when I hear the gospel reading this morning, I really wish things had gone differently.  I wish that, when Jesus met the Canaanite woman, that he’d been really welcoming to her.  That he’d gone out of his way to greet her, to make her feel accepted.  This is, after all, the Episcopal Church, and all are welcome!

But Jesus doesn’t immediately welcome the Canaanite woman, does he.  In fact, the disciples are really annoyed with her.  They’ve been surrounded by huge crowds--and the gospel writer tells us over and over again how Jesus is trying to retreat from those crowds, to find a moment’s peace--and now they’ve gone away from the Sea of Galilee to the coast, to Tyre and Sidon, a new place--and they’re confronted by a Canaanite woman.  She’s not even Jewish.  She’s not the audience Jesus is there for!  And she follows them, shouting loudly, calling on Jesus to heal her daughter.  Over and over and over again.  Can’t she just go away, the disciples ask.  And Jesus himself at first ignores her and then, when the disciples ask, he seems to try to send her away with the explanation, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)  I can’t help you, lady!  Leave us alone!

The woman knows that she is an outsider.  She lives not in Jerusalem but out nearer the coast. She isn’t a part of the tribes of Israel.  She’s a foreigner, an outsider.  And she lives on the margin of society--her daughter is possessed by a demon, she says.  She’s so much an outsider that she even breaches the norms of polite society. She trails behind the disciples, shouting constantly at Jesus.  This woman is annoying!

And here, depending on how you understand Jesus, things get tricky, right?  If you believe that Jesus is fully human, it’s easy to say, “Well, this is a place where Jesus gets it wrong.  In his humanity he is challenged by this difficult woman, but eventually he does the right thing.  Here Jesus learns that God’s mercy is for all people.”  And that well may be.  But if your Christology is a bit higher and you focus on that Jesus is fully divine, he must, like God, be fully perfect and surely couldn’t have made this sort of mistake.  He must then be testing his disciples--setting up an incident to show them the truth, to teach them that the Canaanite woman is included in God’s love.  And that’s an explanation I’ve heard before, as well.

I’d like to suggest that I think that the focus on Jesus’s motivations in this situation may be a bit of a red herring, even an unanswerable question.  For me, what this encounter with the Canaanite woman shows us is not something about Jesus--but something about the way the world is.

Our world is deeply divided--in small, quiet ways and in big, systemic ways.  There are clear, present ways that we make one another feel unwelcome, excluded, outsider; I think of the obvious issues like segregation, Jim Crow laws, the institution of slavery itself in our country--but also the quieter, more subtle ones--where and which statues we erect in our town centers, whose names are honored in our institutions, and who we see in leadership around us.  There are subtle ways that we divide and exclude--sometimes consciously and sometimes even unconsciously.  And it’s not just about race, is it.  How are disabled folks afforded access to our public spaces?  How are the mentally ill cared for and treated in our society?  How would the Canaanite woman’s daughter have been received here in New Haven--or the Canaanite woman herself, crying out in the streets as she was?

The world is divided.  And we see that reflected in the circumstances of the story we hear this morning.

But Jesus shows us something different.  Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God has come near.  That the love, the mercy, the grace of God is available to all people--not just the ones we want it to apply to, either!  It’s available to those in great need.  To those who are annoying.  Even to those who are full of hatred. 

I worked for a priest once whose voice still resonates in my head from time to time; anytime I’d get really annoyed with someone, he’d remind me, “Oh, she really is something, isn’t she.  And just to think--Jesus died for her, too.”

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” God says in the words of the prophet Isaiah.  This love, this mercy, this kingdom of justice and peace is for all people.  Not just for the Jewish nation.  Not just for Christians.  For all people.  Good and bad.  Lovely and unlovely.

We look across our nation and can see easily and quickly that the reign of the kingdom of God is not yet.  We are divided, we fight, we exclude one another.  But the kingdom of God has come near.  We know what things can look like.  What things should look like.  We have a glimpse of the reign of the kingdom of God.

And all people are included in that gift of love.  The Canaanite woman, her daughter, you, and me.

Will we accept that great gift?  Will we allow our hearts to follow Jesus--to live within the vision of that kingdom of love, of justice, of mercy?  Will we welcome the Canaanite woman?  Will we welcome one another?

This is not always easy work, living as though everyone is included in God’s love.  It requires a cost.  It means we have to work towards including those who don’t fit, who differ from our own understanding and preconceived notions of the world.  It means we have to give of our selves, of what we have, even of our own privilege, to make sure that all are invited.  It means we may suffer at the hands of evil while proclaiming the coming of the reign of the kingdom of God.  There is a real cost to living within the knowledge of God’s love and mercy.

But it is only through the mercy of Jesus that we can begin to try.  May God give us his grace to love.  His grace to heal.  And the courage of the resurrection to live into the reign of the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

 

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More than Conquerors

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More than Conquerors

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For centuries, Saint Paul’s letters have been at the center of Christian faith. Arguably, the most important figure in Christianity besides Jesus, Saint Paul and his letters have been the foundation and source of theological arguments throughout the ages. From the earliest Church Fathers to modern era reformers, Saint Paul has been the aid and inspiration for many Christian thinkers.

Countless parishes bear his name, and his impact on the Christian faith goes further than the eye can see. While educated in the Law and a Roman citizen, Saint Paul was not systematician, he was not setting out to write a multi volume theological book. Nor was he writing books for the bible. Instead, Saint Paul was a man for whom his experience with the risen Lord altered his life forever. Dedicating his life, even to his last breath, to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.

While venerated and held in high regard by scholars and theologians, Saint Paul himself was not a larger than life figure. While successful in teaching people of Jesus, it was not without its blemishes nor was it a one off event. Hence all his personal letters where we find Saint Paul teaching and reteaching Christian communities. Sometimes at a point of anger and frustration. While he was able to make believers out of various non-jewish communities, his missionary efforts would come to end and his life taken away by the empire.

From all accounts, his own included, Saint Paul was not a luminous or grand figure. If we read through Saint Paul’s letters, we’d find out, by his own admittance, that he was not a gifted speaker, possibly suffering from a speech impediment. Saint Paul speaks openly about his imprisonment and physical abuse by Roman soldiers. He even shares with his audience his own medical problems. An unknown deformity in his eye had plagued him in his missionary endeavors in Galatia.

I’m sure like many of us, Saint Paul must at times felt both blessed by God and beaten up by the world. And yet for Saint Paul all the ailments of this world, all its challenges and stumbling blocks, were no longer a deadly threat. While our bodies may be bruised, our hearts broken, our minds challenged, and our bodies decaying, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all of humanity has been given the chance to transcends this earthly life.

While Saint Paul reminds us that all life will end and flesh will decay, the cosmic promise of Jesus Christ is that all flesh and bodies will be transformed. And while we cannot see what this looks like, what life after death looks like, we are led by the Spirit. As Saint Paul reminds us, we who are led by the Spirit are children of God and we will one day be glorified with Christ.

And yet all this talk of the life to come and bliss of the resurrection may in itself be of no use for us. Specially for those whose lives are filled with fear and horror every day they wake up.

What good is Saint Paul’s message of a new creation?

What actual joy can we obtain by believing that one day all bodies will be redeemed and transformed, when innocent lives and sacred bodies are taken away by evil forces?

Especially as we’ve witnessed and continue to witness over and over again certain lives understood as inferior and even disposable. The plague of human violence has created a false economy where some bodies have been viewed as more valuable than others. And we don’t have to look too far into our history to see this. Just turn on your tv or pick up the paper and you’ll see the death of innocent men, women, and children.

Yet, Saint Paul’s personal assurance that our bodies will one day be transformed is not oblivious to the suffering and pain experienced by human bodies. Rather, Saint Paul’s assurance that one day, one day, our bodies will be transformed and made new comes from his own experience with the risen Christ, whose wounds were not vanished but transformed in his resurrected body. Saint Paul’s certitude does not neglect the pain and suffering of our human bodies, on the contrary, Saint Paul views the state of human creation as that of a mother in the midst of labor. An image he’s not afraid to use even for himself in his letter to the Galatians, where he compares his pain at the division taking place amongst Christians to that of a mother giving birth.

While the pain of labor was symbolic for Saint Paul, his own body was no stranger to pain and violence. Remember his imprisonment and physical abuse by Roman solider. In the Book of Acts, we’re told that “the magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.  After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

For Saint Paul, a new creation, the transformation of the flesh and body, is at the center of Christ’s resurrection. This believe is what kept him going amidst beating, imprisonment, and ridicule.

In his letter to Romans, Saint Paul’s final known letter, we find a seasoned and experienced Paul. After years of missionary trips all over the known world, we find an old, beat up man, who has given up everything to go out and spread the Good News. Putting his body on the line, Saint Paul seems more convinced than ever of God’s faithfulness.

In the verses the follow today’s Epistle, Saint Paul freely and openly puts it out there for all who might struggle to believe that God will reign supreme. That our bodies, and the bodies of the innocent and vulnerable, the living and dead, will not be consumed by the violence of the earth but transformed by the love of God in Christ Jesus. After his own trials and tribulations, Saint Paul writes:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Amen.

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How We Listen

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How We Listen

The Rev’d Matthew D. C. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
July 16, 2017

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In college, I took a mission trip to Honduras to help with construction of shelters for women rescued out of prostitution. On one break, I was sitting outside on the street and a boy walked in front of me, bought some ice cream from a cart, and sat down right next to me. We spoke for a while, and then I decided, since it was a mission trip, I should talk with him about Jesus. I looked at him and very pious said what I thought was “Jesus Christ died for your sin.” What I actually said was, “Jesus Christo se murió por su periodicos,” which of course means, “Jesus Christ died for your newspapers.” The boy calmly looked at me, licked his ice cream, and said, “Sí.”

Swing and a miss. Sort of missed the whole point.

After many years of studying the gospel tradition, I realized my bizarre claim, while not theologically true, was not terribly different from the way Jesus often taught. Jesus often taught to confuse people who weren’t prepared to listen. What do I mean?

Always pay attention to the bits of the scripture that the lectionary cuts out. Our gospel reading about the parable of the seeds cuts out seven verses in between the parable and its interpretation. We imagine Jesus as an effective communicator, because he used stories to drive his point home. But in these omitted verses Jesus explicitly says he speaks in parable to confuse those without ears attuned to the rhythms of the kingdom of god.

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 

For this people’s heart has grown dull,

                        and their ears are hard of hearing,

                                    and they have shut their eyes;

                                    so that they might not look with their eyes,

                        and listen with their ears,

            and understand with their heart and turn—

                        and I would heal them.’ 

Last year I published an article on listening in the ancient world. We may tend to think of listening as a simple act, but it is not. Pliny the Younger wrote to the senator Claudius Restitutus to tell him about a reading he had just left. Pliny was in a sorry state of righteous indignation. A few clever persons in the audience had listened to the reading of a highly finished and polished work in the most rude way imaginable: they just sat there—still and undisruptive. They kept their mouth closed. They did not wave their hands. They did not even rise to their feet.[1] The audience, it would seem, did effectively what you all are now doing as you listen to my sermon. To us, this is completely acceptable behavior. To Pliny, it was laziness and conceit. That’s because not all listening is the same.

There are different types of listening. Just because you hear with your ears does not mean you are listening with your heart. Spiritual listening is the kind of listening that allows you to see with the eyes of your heart. Seeing is not the same as beholding, even though both relate to the sense of sight. Listening and seeing is not the same thing as heeding and beholding with the ears and eyes of the kingdom of god.

When Jesus ends the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen!,” he is not simply saying, “Now y’all pay attention.” That is the interpretation of the parable. Just because you have eyes and ears does not mean you are really seeing and listening. The question is: how do you hear? How do you see?

It has to do with the way we see complex issues. Allow me to offer one example. This week the Rev. William Barber, president of the organization, Repairers of the Breach, was arrested for protesting the new healthcare bill, which aims to remove protections for the most vulnerable in our society, including people with pre-existing conditions, such as members of my family, while raising costs for others, all the while exempting the people trying to put the bill into law. Their protest signs said, “Love Thy Neighbor. (No exceptions.)” Barber said, “The senators are preying on the sickest and the poorest in this country. That kind of prayer is hypocritical. Their kind of prayer is the prayer that makes God weep, ... We come here today to talk about sin. Sin. This bill, an attempt to use power to take health care, is sin. It’s immoral.”[2] How can we be a nation too poor to provide healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society and rich enough to spend $406 billion dollars on fighter jets?[3] Jesus never said “I’m sorry but you have a pre-existing condition.” Never said “I’m sorry but as a society we can’t afford to take care of the most vulnerable.”

I get that these issues are complex, and I don’t mean to make them seem otherwise. The issue raised by our gospel reading, though, is how we will we listen, how will we see the situation. Seeing and listening with the eyes and ears of the kingdom of god means be attuned to how the most vulnerable in our society are being treated. What would it look like for god’s justice to reign? Jesus stands every time with, and was in fact one of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.

What is at stake in how we listen? In the parable, it is a question of do we listening in such a way that it open, receptive, and life-giving. Or are our hearts, eyes, and ears to hardened or shallow to allow life around us to flourish. What is at stake in the end is not only the flourish of those around us, but also our own very souls, as well.

Come to the one who nourishes the soil of our hearts, who teaches us to see, to listen with eyes and ears of the kingdom of god, to the one by whose wounds we ourselves are healed.

 


[1] Pliny, Ep., 6.17.1–2; cf. A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 375.

[2] Taken from http://www.charlotteobserver.com/latest-news/article161200048.html (July 15, 2017).

[3] Taken from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-10/f-35-program-costs-jump-to-406-billion-in-new-pentagon-estimate (July 15, 2017); https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/10/nation-too-broke-universal-healthcare-spend-406-billion-more-f-35 (July 15, 2017).

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Paul makes the grade

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Paul makes the grade

If you’re graduating this weekend, or anytime this spring, congratulations to you!  It’s likely felt like a long and hard journey, lots of work, lots of projects, lots of writing—and hopefully lots of joy in the process and in the material you’ve engaged.  If you’re a teacher or professor and your students are graduating, perhaps your grades are in, which may feel like even more work, so congratulations to you, too.  And if you’re not graduating, if you’re not turning in grades, I’m sure you can join me in a collective sigh of relief that we didn’t have these particular deadlines to make—while still giving thanks for our graduates and the work they’ve accomplished.

We place a lot of importance in academic achievement in our world—especially in towns like New Haven.  When I moved back to New Haven I joked with a friend that in New York people ask what you do—what your profession is.  Here in New Haven folks are more likely to ask what your work is—what you’re researching, what you’re studying, what you’re writing about.  I suspect Paul could have fit in well in New Haven.

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Entering the Door

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Entering the Door

The Rev’d Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
May 7, 2017


And Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning I would like to use our Gospel passage as a lens through which to read the rest of the Gospel of John, and in particular a few important passages before and after Jesus’s resurrection. 

The words translated “gate,” “sheepfold,” and “gatekeeper” in John 10 are more literally “door,” “courtyard of the sheep,” and “doorkeeper.” Being inside or outside the courtyard matters. You can only get in the courtyard through the door and you want to pass through the door and by the doorkeeper with the shepherd.

There is another passage in the Gospel of John where all these words and ideas appear close together. In John 18, at the trial of Jesus, it says

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who was the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. The woman who was the doorkeeper said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

In nearly complete reversal of the ideas laid out in our Gospel reading, Peter does not enter through the door into the courtyard with Jesus. He waits outside the door. Eventually someone other than Jesus, our good shepherd, brings him in another way. The doorkeeper asks Peter if he really is one of Jesus’s disciples, and, at least in that moment, he answers truthfully: I am not.

Peter was scared to enter through the door into the courtyard with Jesus. In fact, without Jesus’s resurrection power, he could not.

But I would like to read another passage through our Gospel reading. In John 20, Mary Magdalene is standing outside the tomb, weeping. When she eventually works up the courage to go inside, she hears Jesus is raised. She realizes she wasn’t standing outside the tomb in the garden, but outside the garden and still inside the tomb. She returns to the garden and sees Jesus but doesn’t know it. She thinks he is the gardener. She asks where Jesus has been taken. It is not until he calls her by name, “Mary,” that she recognizes Jesus.

“The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” He calls Mary by name, she recognizes his voice and her name, and he leads her from weeping to joy. Jesus comes that we may have life and have it abundantly, that we may come into the courtyard and find pasture. He calls you by name, “Beloved Child of God.” He leads us from the empty tomb into the garden of resurrection life, and he makes us lay down in the green pasture.

And I would like to read our Gospel passage in light of yet another story in the Gospel of John. Later in John chapter 20,

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

And then just a few verses later, the story continues:

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

The disciples have locked themselves inside the locked doors of the house. The locked doors are their fears and doubts. But despite the closed doors, Jesus enters their fears and offers them peace. “Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you.”

The epistle reading says, “By Christ’s wounds we are healed.” I believe that is true both spiritual and theologically, as well as psychologically and emotionally. The resurrected God appears to us with a wounded and scarred body. Something about seeing and touching the broken body of the resurrected Jesus heals our own wounds and fears and doubts. God doesn’t tell us why pain exists in the world, but God does show us that God is no stranger to pain, to injustice fueled by human fear.

Jesus enters into our lives through the locked doors of our fears, worries, pains, insecurities, and wounds. We hear his voice:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Jesus is the door. Jesus is also the shepherd. Jesus is also the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Jesus calls our name and brings us out of the tomb into the garden. Jesus breaks through the doors of our fears and give us his own peace.

The Lord spreads a table before us today, too. Jesus is the host and the sacrifice. He offers himself so that we may live. Come, see, and touch the wounded and broken body of Christ. And see that it is by his wounds that we are healed.

 

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Seeing hope, seeing Jesus

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Seeing hope, seeing Jesus

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday of Easter (Year A)
April 30, 2017

Last week I was in an establishment where John Kerry was having dinner.  I played it very, very cool.  I didn’t stare.  I didn’t go over and say anything.  I didn’t snap a surreptitious picture for social media.  I just finished my dinner and left.  No big deal, right?  It’s New Haven.  There’s a former Secretary of State.  It happens all the time, right?

When I lived in Manhattan this sort of thing happened all the time.  Folks in my neighborhood would see a celebrity and play it very cool, not looking, not gawking, just going on about their business.  A colleague was constantly running into Alec Baldwin in a coffee shop, or seeing him pedaling on a Citibike.  I never had these sorts of encounters.  I learned Alec Baldwin takes a Citibike by seeing it online, probably in the New York Post, after he’d been given a ticket for cycling the wrong way on a one-way street. 

It’s really pretty easy for me to play it cool with celebrity sightings.  Mostly because I generally can’t recognize anyone in public!  Sure, I know when I see Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, but I’m sure I’ve missed him on the streets of New York dozens of times.  I’m just not expecting to see him. 

What’s more, I have a little bit of anxiety about recognizing people.  Maybe you do, too.  Have you ever run up behind someone and called her name, only to have her turn around—and it’s NOT your friend Jill from high school, but someone that just looks vaguely like her?  The humiliation is just too much.  So I just keep my mouth shut.  I’m not one for recognizing folks. 

I am pretty good about recognizing people from church, though.  But, and here the tables are turned, sometimes folks don’t recognize me out of my collar!  Whenever I’m in the Stop and Shop I’m pretty good at spotting parishioners—but sometimes I look different out of collar, out of context!  And that’s a pretty funny moment, too. 

So I’m a little sympathetic towards Cleopus and his friend from this morning’s gospel.  They don’t recognize Jesus at first as they walk along the road with him. 

On the same day Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb, Cleopus and his friend were walking along the road to Emmaus, a town about seven miles outside of Jerusalem, about three hours away.  And we don’t know for sure, but it seems safe to assume they might be walking from Jerusalem.  It’s likely they’d’ been in Jerusalem, because Cleopus’s mother was at the crucifixion—maybe he and his friend were too—and it’s likely they were coming from there because they knew of Jesus’s crucifixion and about the empty tomb.  Nevertheless, they don’t recognize the stranger that joins them on the road; they explain to him why they’re sad—about the events in Jerusalem, the crucifixion.  And the stranger starts to interpret these events to them.

So why is it that they don’t recognize him? 

Maybe they really don’t realize it’s him because they aren’t very sure what Jesus looks like.  Cleopus’s mother was there, but maybe he and his friend weren’t at the crucifixion.  Maybe they weren’t that close to Jesus and haven’t seen him very much.  Maybe it’s that he’s out of context—that they don’t expect to see him. 

Maybe it’s that they have bad eyesight.  Issues of recognizing people happen throughout scripture, and it’s worth noting that the ancient world didn’t have the same kind of corrective vision techniques we enjoy today.  I can’t recognize people more than thirty feet away without my glasses, but, if I have my glasses on, I’m likely to see you down the street.

Or maybe it’s that they just can’t see, don’t expect to see, what’s happened.  They’re overwhelmed by  their grief, in their expectation that death is the final word, that the world really is the way they expect it to be.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot find hope.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot recognize the movement of God around them in the world.  Maybe they expect death because they cannot see Jesus.

It’s hard to hold onto hope, isn’t it.  The world can tell us that hope is foolish, naive, irrational.  I’m reminded when I’m looking for hope of a story that Cope Moyers, Bill Moyers’ son, told.  Cope had been in the 1980’s or 1990’s a producer for CNN, a successful and hard-working media professional in his own right, just as his father had done.  But underneath the veneer of success and happiness, Cope had also developed a hidden life of drug addiction.  He’d disappear for days and even weeks at the time to sneak away to flop houses, dingy apartments, drug dens in Atlanta and New York to smoke crack, to get away from his life, to self-medicate whatever the pain was that was chasing him.  And each time his father would hire an investigator, find Cope, and go off and get him and take him to rehab.  This happened again and again and again until finally Cope was done.  And after years of expensive rehab, he finally was able to stay sober, and he dedicated his life to recovery work, serving as the development director for the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. 

I met Cope when he was sober, when he had just written his book Broken about his addiction and recovery experience.  He was at a speaking gig, talking about his story, talking about the book, talking about recovery, and it was a hard and personal story to tell in public.  During a question and answer session someone in the audience had a question for Cope.  With some emotion in his voice, the audience member rose and asked his question, “So how many times do you go to rehab?  I mean, if someone goes and gets clean and then starts using again, how many times do you keep going back?”  I imagined the pain of a family member whose life had been twisted by addiction, whose savings had been dried up, who was experiencing the pain of watching a loved one die in the grip of addictive behavior.  And Cope Moyers stood up, leaned into the microphone, and straightforwardly replied, “Oh, that’s easy.  You just keep going back as many times as it takes.  You keep going back until it works.”

There was no magic number after which it was too much.  There was no point after which there was no hope.  You just keep going back as many times as it takes.

Cope Moyers hadn’t given up.  And he was alive.  And lots of other folks surely are alive because of his story, his faith, his hope that things can be better.  That there is recovery.  That there is life.

Now there are plenty of reasons that this might seem like a glib reply.  There are limits to what families can do financially; there are limits to what our souls and bodies can bear—sometimes we have to set boundaries to protect ourselves from hurtful behavior.  There’s a limit physically to what the body can bear—witness the many deaths from overdoses even in our own city.  All of those are appropriate and true sorts of limitations, boundaries, that respect the reality of death.  But Cope didn’t get hung up on any of those limitations.  He didn’t need to, for Cope had seen death—but somehow he’d come to believe in life.

And that’s what God shows us in the resurrection of Jesus.  That the story is not yet finished.  That there is hope beyond our wildest imagining.  But we can miss it if we’re not looking for God. 

Cleopus and his friend by all rational standards aren’t wrong to assume that Jesus is dead.  But they have forgotten the thing that Jesus has revealed—that the God of Life, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,  is ultimately in control.  That God has swallowed up death.  That, in Jesus, there is hope.

And so it’s no wonder that, as he sits at table, takes the bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them, that then they are able to see for the first time who he really is.  That they are filled with hope.  That they see Jesus. 

And when they realize who it is that accompanies them, their whole world is changed.  They run the seven miles back to Jerusalem to be with the apostles, to tell them what they’d seen, what they’d experienced, how Jesus was alilve and had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

How many times do you go back to rehab, the man asked Cope Moyers.  How many times do we go back?  How many times do we come forward to receive Jesus’s own self-offering, bread taken, blessed, broken, and given?  His own body given for us?  His own love poured out, shared with and for us?

Every time.  Every time.  For when we look for Jesus, when we really see him, our whole world view is changed.  We can’t help but be filled with hope, for the God of Love has shown us that death is no thing.  We can’t help be filled with hope, for Jesus is walking beside us.  We can’t help running to tell this good news—that the Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to us!

Where are you in need of hope today?  Where are you longing for the presence of Christ?  When you come to the altar, receive the very body of Christ, broken for you.  Receive his presence.  Know that he is here.   He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

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Doubting Thomas? Faithful Thomas!

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Doubting Thomas? Faithful Thomas!

Last week the worst thing imaginable happened.  Any death is a loss, any death is sad, but my friend Joshua, he was so young.  Only thirty three.  Executed.  Well, murdered, really.  Maybe you heard of him—the carpenter’s son, the teacher and preacher that had been going about Galilee for the past few years, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near…  He drew such crowds—he had such a presence about him, a spirit, a charism, that people began to wonder if he might be the anointed one, the Messiah, the one spoken about by the prophets, who would restore our nation to wholeness and throw off the yoke of oppression.

Apparently the attention he gathered was too great; the Romans, afraid of rebellion, suspected him of treason, and the Temple authorities accused him of blasphemy.  Despite the danger, we followed him to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover.  And, just as we feared, after dinner on Thursday night he was taken into custody, betrayed by our friend Judas, and, after a trumped-up trial, executed—hung—crucified—for all to see.

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What are you looking for?

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What are you looking for?

We have walked this Holy Week through the steps of Jesus.  We have walked the way of the cross.  As Father Matthew put it in last week’s newsletter, we weren’t “going through the motions,” but we have played “a part in the divine drama of salvation.”  We had our feet washed as the disciples did.  We dined with Jesus in that upper room—but this time, we received his very body and blood in the sacrament.  We sat with him in the garden.  But then Friday we came to the foot of the cross and grieved there at his death, even as we rejoiced in his presence, the salvation he has wrought by his own self offering.

And today we have come here, to this holy place, to this celebration of Easter, of the Resurrection.  And, as I asked you on Christmas Eve, I want to ask again:  What have you come here to see?  What has brought you here?  What are you looking for? 

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Sermon for the Easter Vigil

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Sermon for the Easter Vigil

Christos anesti! Christus surrexit! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Easter is about God overturning and exceeding human expectations.

I grew up a poor pastor’s kid, living in a small, old rental house in a rural town 40 miles north of Dallas. My dad started a company to make some extra money and, after a few years, his company had him traveling overseas for long stretches of time. To my childhood memory, he would be gone for three or four months at a time. One trip took him to Australia and every time he called home he would tell us he was bringing home a very special gift for us. We waited for what felt like weeks and months for dad to come home, but also for that special gift. When he finally returned, after the hugs and kisses, we said, “Where’s the special gift?” He grinned with pride, went to his bag, and pulled out a handcrafted, beautifully painted, aboriginal boomerang.

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Sermon for Good Friday

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Sermon for Good Friday

“Be not far from me for trouble is near and there is none to help.” (Ps 22:11)

How can I preach to you on a day when there are no words to be spoken?  How can anyone speak of hope on a day where it looks to be crushed? How can we even think to bring to words any Good News on this day where the flame of love seems to have been snuffed out?

Job brings to words even this kind of silence demanded at suffering. As his friends try to offer vain words of comfort, he responds: “Look at me and shut up.” (Job 21:5). So we must look at the man on the cross, and we must shut our mouths.  But only for so long.

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Gird yourselves with the towel of Christ

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Gird yourselves with the towel of Christ

Two years ago from this year's Easter Day, on the 16th of April, I was ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons. At my ordination, I was blessed to have Fr Tony Lewis serve as the preacher -- some of you may know Fr Lewis as a friend of this parish and professor emeritus of my Southern home and training ground, Virginia Seminary.

In preparation for my anniversary as a Deacon, I read through his sermon manuscript. And once again, I was moved by his words and insight as scholar and priest.

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