Words from our preachers
“As if by silent command they moved from the house and out beyond the village. When they came to an open area and found others come from Jerusalem, they neither felt nor expressed surprise. They were conscious only of sharing and expectation. The silence was total, as if this hillside had been isolated from the surrounding world and time. In the silence he came among them and in touching one another they were aware of touching him and he them. Suddenly they knew that this hour was both an ending and a beginning both meeting and farewell. Overcome with emotion, some cried out as if questioning. But their voices died away into silence. Some stood holding up their arms looking into the darkening sky. Then a few suggested that they return to the city and get some rest. Others began to sing softly.” (from Portrait of a Woman, p. 89, by Herbert O’Driscoll)
Anglican Priest, Herbert O’Driscoll, wrote those words as a description of what it might have been like on the day we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples witnessed the resurrected Christ ascending from earth into heaven. I like what he has done in this description, capturing the uncertainty and wonder of it – the joy and the grief mingled together as the disciples, still reeling from the surprising reality of resurrection, now have their once again living Lord taken from them by cloud and mystery.
Yet he did not leave them without hope. As he was being gathered up by divine power, he gave them a mission and promised to send them the power and guidance to fulfill that mission. His statement of mission to them was “you will be my witnesses”, and his promise was, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”
“You will be my witnesses”. That is the central mission of the Church Universal. To be witnesses of our risen Lord Christ Jesus. Each branch of the church, each denomination, at its best is led in creative and life giving ways to do that. To embrace the world and share the good news that Christ has destroyed death and lives among us. This mission should both direct us and correct us.
When is the church most the church? Not when it is adding new members and growing, though growth is very important to the carrying out of the mission. And not when it is taking care of the needs of its members, though that is important too. The church is most the church when it is witnessing to the amazing and life giving grace of our risen Lord.
I once heard a bishop say that the church is more like a firehouse than a hospital. A firehouse and its members exist to go out into the world to serve. Whereas a hospital exists to take people in and isolate them from the germs and diseases of the world in order to take care of their ailments. Now it is true that the church is a source of comfort, healing and nourishment for us. We come weekly to be fed, but the purpose of the church does not to end there. We must not come here to St. Paul’s, just to be fed, but also willing to be led. Willing to be clothed more and more in the power of the Spirit and go out as a squad of witnesses for Christ.
A squad of witnesses for Christ! Yikes! That might sound just a bit too daring for many of us. But when you really think about the language, it becomes a little less hair raising. In his weekly lectionary commentary, The Rev. William Willimon reminds us, “The mission of the witness is simply to stand up there before the court and to truthfully tell what he or she knows – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… Nothing spectacular, nothing complicated…Just tell what you know.” (from Pulpit Resource). What do you know about Jesus Christ? Who is he to you? Share that.
St. Francis of Assisi is said to have instructed new converts to the faith to “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.” Maybe that is a useful admonition to us in our noisy, wordy world. Maybe these days, a picture or an action is worth a thousand words. It happened to me years ago now, but I will never forget, one day coming home in a tizzy about my overbooked calendar to find that our next door neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow the lawn for me. That got me out of my tizzy of worry and into a place of feeling understood and supported. Preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.
Sometimes words are necessary, but if so, no detailed theological treatise is required. All we are ever asked to do is share how God in Christ has touched our lives in ways that have mattered. Just let others in on the genuine presence of Christ in our lives, and make the best accounting of the hope that is in you because of it. We are given a wonderful example of this in the Gospel of John. You may remember the passage about the man born blind who is healed by Jesus – we read it on one Sunday this past Lent. In that passage Jesus’ critics come and try to convince the man that he is mistaken – that it wasn’t really Jesus who had restored his sight. The man made no deep theological argument, no long speech. His witness to the power of Christ in his life was simple: “One thing I know. That though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)
If we know God- and not just by hearsay- and we share our experience of God with someone else by what we do or by what we say, or both, God will be at work in that sharing. We don’t need to be hung up on the outcomes. “You will be my witnesses” Jesus says. It’s that simple. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God. And indeed it is God who directs us in this, and it is God who will bring about the most gracious outcomes.
When the disciples left that hillside of the ascension, they returned to Jerusalem, a bit disoriented and unsure of what would come next. But they dared to have confidence in his promise to give them the power to witness in the world. And so for 10 days, constant in prayer, they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The coming of which we will celebrate next Sunday. By the way, the color of the day is red, so it you have some in your wardrobe it would be great if you could wear it, so we can fill the place with as much red as possible.
“You will be my witnesses.” The mission statement of the church universal. Our own parish statement of call speaks to how we feel called as a parish to live this out here in our context. It is printed on the back of your bulletin. Let’s read it together:
St. Paul’s is a Christian community where people are met and accepted without judgment for who they are and are adopted into a loving a caring family. Our faith provides a framework within which we explore, honor and celebrate the presence of God in daily experiences, especially in the crises, conflicts and transitions of life, and are thereby equipped to live fully in an increasingly complex and changing world.
We believe we are called to center our life in Jesus Christ through a regular discipline of Eucharistic worship, scripture study and prayer.
We believe our faith leads us to fulfill our mission, which is to share ourselves and our resources with each other, our community and the world.
We believe we are called to discover and affirm our spiritual gifts and be responsible and committed ministers of these gifts in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the coming week, I invite you to pray with me, that God will kindle and rekindle the power of the Spirit among us, that we may continue to live into that call as a community that faithfully witnesses to Christ our Lord. Amen+
This Gospel passage begins with Jesus showing such gentleness thoughtfulness and kindness to his beloved friends, which is a theme that fits so beautifully with our national observance today of Mother’s Day. The context here is their last night together before the crucifixion. At supper Jesus has washed their feet, and then mystically given them his very self in bread and wine. He has predicted denial by Peter, chief among them, and Judas has already slipped away from them to betray their whereabouts to the authorities. So he knows their heads and hearts are reeling as they begin to take in what he has seen coming for a while. And he reaches out to them with compassion and tender care – “Do not let your hearts be troubled”- or another translation of the Greek is, “Do not let your hearts be anguished.”
But he does not cradle them with those words of comfort for long. He is aware of the urgency of time and he moves on to give them the provisions they will need to understand and survive the events that are bearing down upon them. He is going, but he will be back. If they feel lost and off track they should remember he himself is their way, their truth, their, and their life, and he will guide them into the presence of God.
“No one comes to the Father except through me” He tells them. This is a statement that has troubled many of us. But it is important to remember context here. Jesus is talking to his closest friends about how they will reach the Father. To use this as a proof text to claim that no other religion besides Christianity is valid is a gross misuse of this statement. In his beautiful commentary on this passage, Jean Vanier, theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities writes:
“In all cultures, and at all times, people heard in some way the voice of God…Maybe some could not name God, but they sought the light of truth and the origin of all things. The word of God was the light for many people. When the word became flesh, Jesus brought to fulfillment all these different paths to God. He does not destroy them: the Word is in each of these paths.”
(Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, p.256)
Seen in this way, this statement by Jesus that he is the way, the truth and the life is an inclusive affirmation rather than an exclusive line in the sand.
And then Jesus moves on to remind his disciples that they already know the Father because they know Jesus. He is telling them that there won’t be some new reality they will be experiencing in the Father’s full presence at the end of their earthly journey. Rather it will just be more so there – more so of what they have experienced in relationship with Jesus, here in this world. Way back in chapter 1 of John we were told that the word and the Father have always been one and the word came into the world to reveal the Father’s compassion and forgiveness. Indeed that has been the underlying theme of this whole Gospel and now Jesus reasserts this theme again in his last moments with his friends.
Building on this theme he takes the next step telling them that when they have faith in what he has revealed of God, they will continue the works that he has done and do even greater works. Now this reference to “greater works” is not a reference to their works being more spectacular. Rather it is a reference to the fact that freed from his earthly life, Jesus, alive again through his disciples, will be able to be present in many times and places. Again I quote Jean Vanier who writes:
“His disciples will continue his mission and his works… to give life, eternal life and to reveal the face and heart of God to people. It is to be the presence of God in the world anywhere there is an absence of God.”
This week I also read a meditation in the book Jesus Calling, which I think also has something to say about this idea of Jesus disciples “greater works. The meditation writer hears the voice of Jesus saying:
“Learn to relate to others through My Love rather than yours. Your human love is ever so limited, full of flaws and manipulation. My loving Presence, which always enfolds you, is available to bless others as well as you. Instead of trying harder to help people through your own paltry supplies, become aware of my unlimited supply which is accessible to you continually. Let my Love envelop your outreach to other people
Many or My precious children have fallen prey to burnout. A better description of their condition might be ‘drainout’ Countless interactions with needy people have drained them, without their conscious awareness. You are among these weary ones, who are like wounded soldiers needing R&R. Take time to rest in the Love-Light of My Presence. I will gradually restore to you the energy you have lost. ”
(Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p.139)
This resonates so beautifully with what Jesus is promising to his followers that last night, when he speaks about their greater works, which are only possible through the ongoing loving relationship with him in God known as prayer. And Jesus drives that point home then in the climax of this Gospel passage where he makes this commitment to his followers:
“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
As a pastor, I have experienced how this statement from Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to comprehend. At first hearing it can seem so over the top – like a divine blank check. And, most of us have had the experience of praying to Jesus specifically and ardently for something and not having our prayers answered directly in the way we anticipated. So what are we to make of this?
The phrase “in my name” which Jesus repeats twice in this statement, is of absolute importance when seeking to understand this commitment Jesus is making to his followers. To ask something in Jesus’ name does not just mean directing it to him. Rather asking something in his name is to ask something that is in accordance with the heart of his cause which, as he says in this statement, is to glorify the Father. So let’s hear that statement of commitment from him again:
“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
So this is a qualified commitment. We are not just to pray for anything we want, but rather our prayers must be in line with Jesus cause – to glorify the Father. When we pray in that way he says, he will be working in concert with us.
The problem for me with this is that I am not always sure what is or is not in accordance with Jesus cause of glorifying the Father. I can think of a good many times when I have prayed ardently for something to come to pass, believing that it is in line with Jesus cause, convinced that what I am asking is the right thing for the good of many, and it has not been granted. Then later, with hindsight, I recognize that what I had so longed for and prayed for would not have been the best thing.
So, this tells me I have to accept that often I don’t and probably can’t know what the right thing to pray for is. So, that takes some pressure off – I don’t have to figure out what should happen, that is God’s job. When I have surrendered to that, what I glimpse though this passage is the amazing truth that nothing that can further God’s most gracious purposes is too big for Christ to do for us. That is why I spend more of my prayer time these days praying for the,”knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power to carry that out” as step eleven of the 12 steps so wisely puts it. It is not that I don’t ever pray for specific things to come to pass – I do. But I do so not confident in my perception, but rather confident that if what I am praying for is in line with God’s most loving purposes, they will come to pass in God’s good time and ways.
And in those times when the things I pray for don’t come to pass in the ways I want or expect, I have the example of Jesus himself, in the garden, praying that the cup of suffering might pass him by if it be the Father’s will. There he prays for one kind of salvation, only to have something even more wondrous worked out through him. That example leads me more and more I trust that the energy of my prayers is never wasted. The love and trust that is the life blood of prayer connects me more deeply to God every time I pray. And that connection is what allows me to go on through whatever lies ahead, tethered securely to God, come what may.
And today our lesson from the book of Acts gives us a fast forward ability, to move from the anguished and frightened circle around the table with Jesus, to see a second generation disciple as a bold and living example of what Jesus is promising here. It is not an easy story – it is the story of a man, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit who is killed for just those reasons – for giving voice to his Spirit-filled vision of God. But as he dies he is not abandoned. The Father and the Son are close at hand, and he is blessed with a vision of that larger reality and with the ability to extend the works and cause of Jesus with his dying breath. Closely echoing Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen’s is an extreme example of the life of faith to which we are each called. May the greater works of Christ our Lord continue to abound among and through us. In Christ’s name. Amen+
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our will O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
I have always thought Paul’s missionary journeys, recorded in Acts, read like one of the old Mission Impossible TV shows. On the second of his three missionary journeys, the one we hear about today, he has been detoured by the Holy Spirit from going any further into the places he had planned to visit in Asia. Instead he returns to the Middle East, and places located primarily in the region along the Northern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea….getting into all kinds of difficulty along the way. He finally gets to Philippi, today’s Greece, where he converts Lydia and her household but he also angered others, so much that he is pursued by a mob of angry townspeople who beat him and put him in prison. After a series of mishaps, he eventually manages to get out of prison (with a little bit of help from an earthquake) and leaves town. He dashes through the cities like Amphipolis and Apollonia, preaching as he goes and arrives in Thessalonica, where once again he is attacked by angry mobs, so he fleas to the next place, Berea, where he should be safe, but the Thessalonians pursue him there — so he fleas to Athens – where we hear about him in today’s Epistle. Paul anticipated only staying in Athens for a short time…just until Silas and Timothy, who he had left back in Berea with the angry mob, could join him. Then he planned that they could all get back on the road and resume their missionary journey together.
Going to Athens is one of the few times Paul goes somewhere not because one of the nasant churches is in some type of trouble and not because he is planning to evangelize in a new city or region. He can relax and take in the sites of the city, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the graceful pillars of the beautiful buildings. As is his way, however, he can’t help but preach the word of God’s love and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ’s redeeming salvation. However, as is often not the case, in Athens he finds an audience that is eager to listen to him! They actually ask him to tell them about this new, to them, God, he speaks of. They are, after all, philosophers in the beautiful city of Athens, the home of Plato, Aristotle, Euripides and so many more. The Athenians love to spend their time in the pursuit of new knowledge — and Paul’s teaching about Christ’s resurrection is new information they are keen to hear about. They want to know what these things Paul is saying – mean.
Paul has seen the many altars in Athens that have been erected to various gods and has seen the idols of even more gods that the people there worship. He knows that the Athenians are polytheistic, that they believe in many different gods, in fact, I read an estimate that there were up to 30,000 gods being worshiped in Athens at the time Paul was there – the commentator said, somewhat sarcastically, that it was easier to find a god than it was to find a man in Athens. But Paul is pretty astute and deduced that the many gods and idols present throughout the city, and significantly the presence of one altar to the unknown god, signals that they are hedging their bets, if you will. Paul realizes that they are still searching for profound meaning in their faith, that they know something is missing. And that awareness, coupled with the Athenian’s desire to comprehend what Paul is talking about, indicates to him that the Athenians are ready to hear about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. So he teaches, explains and explores with them – and as it says later in Acts “some of them joined him and became believers”.
It can be somewhat easy to scoff at the Athenians and their worship of many gods and of their seemingly endless searching. But I think that there are many people today who feel as if something is missing in their lives, at least some of the time, if not all of the time. Many are searching to finds ways of finding meaning in this time of uncertainty in our nation, ways to deal with the resulting emotions of fear or anxiety, the lack of trust, the sadness, how to find meaning in the chaos. So we search, and often end up creating idols, in a misguided effort to fill what is missing – trying to find that meaning. Some folks try to find meaning in things like their possessions or jobs. We can be pretty good at creating and worshiping our own false gods …. and still some of us seem never to be satisfied. What is it we are searching for, what are we pursuing, where is the meaning?
When we dissect this morning’s Gospel a bit, we can find the meaning the Athenians were searching for; we can find the meaning that so many today long for. I want to tell you that it took me a while to understand how this Gospel shows us that. In this, part of Jesus’s Farewell Discourse during the Last Supper, he tells the disciples that he, the physical presence in this world of God’s love, is leaving. He says, “In a little while you will no longer see me.” Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask God to send The Advocate, who will guide, counsel, comfort and love the world’s people.
But at first reading, the beginning of this Gospel can sound as if Jesus is telling us that we will only receive the Advocate by keeping his commandments — that we must earn the Advocate. It reads: Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. And then at the end of the Gospel it can seem that Jesus is saying if you don’t keep his commandments you don’t love him and that if you don’t love him, God will not love you.
But note, there is a period between those two first sentences at the beginning of the reading, not a comma. There is no — Do this and Then I will do that. If the reading is heard as if there were a comma rather than a period, it could seem that there is a quid pro quo……..but even then it would require that we take this reading be taken out of the larger Gospel context, the whole of the Gospels, because we have been told by Jesus over and over again that God has already given us God’s love to us through God’s grace.
What Jesus is telling us in this Gospel is that we should keep his commandments because we love him, that if we love him we will want to keep his commandments – the keeping of the commandments is the outcome of God’s love for us, not the cause of it. It is through God’s grace that we have already been given that great gift of unconditional love that we don’t deserve and can’t earn.
Further, it is through our relationship based on the love of the Trinity, that we love each other. It is through that relationship that Jesus continued to reveal himself after he was gone because the Advocate is with us as part of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth — another gift from God. That Spirit of Truth that we can cling to in this uncertain, scary time. Jesus promised his disciples, and therefore us, that The Advocate will show and guide the way. In just a few minutes we will call upon that Advocate, The Spirit, to be present at the Eucharist – in our relationship with God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Advocate, as bread and wine.
What is it we are searching for, what are we pursuing, where is the meaning? How does this Gospel answer those questions the Athenians asked and that so many still ask at times? It is the love from God, made manifest in Jesus Christ and continued through the gift of the Advocate. It is love that is the grounding, the purpose, the end result, the meaning that can be found through the searching. It is love made manifest in Christ, and then continued through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. It is that from which we can derive the meaning that satisfies us, that fills what was missing. The recognition of that relationship, the joy and sustenance derived from that relationship, is what the Athenians were searching for, what some of them found when they were striving to understand what the message of Paul’s words meant.
And as Marcus Borg, the contemporary writer and theologian, reminds us in today’s world, “God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then our beginning to live in that relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”, and I would add also with each other through the help and with the love of The Spirit of Truth.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
One of my fondest memories is that of my Grandmother and her sisters teaching me and my cousins when we were very young children the 23rd psalm. I think many of us learned the 23rd psalm as small children and have gone on to teach it to those in the next generation. It is among the most well-known pieces of scripture we have. I have heard it said that one reason for the appeal of the image of the Good Shepherd lasting across the centuries is that it is an image of a wonderful relationship: a vulnerable little lamb embraced in the arms of a loving shepherd. In the psalm, we read of green grasses, calm peaceful waters….but it is the image of the loving Shepherd that makes those valleys safe and life-giving. Even people who would not identify themselves as religious or even spiritual, turn to it, almost automatically, when in crisis….. It is an image of that protective, loving relationship with Jesus Christ that we often recognize and experience at times of need in our lives.
Frequently in Morning Prayer there is no sermon. And the three readings this Sunday could certainly stand alone, especially the 23rd psalm and today’s reading from John: the Good Shepherd Discourse. So this morning I would like to do something that is a little bit different and briefly focus on two women, Monnica, and Julian of Norwich. Two women whose lives embrace and demonstrate the meaning of these readings. Both these women have feast days in our faith and I think it is no accident that their feast days are appointed by the Episcopal Church to be celebrated the week before this Sunday, back on May 4th for Monnica, and Julian’s the week after this Sunday, tomorrow, on May 8th. As sheep of the flock, the relationship with God and with those in their lives that these women lived, have done much over the centuries to spread God’s word and share Jesus’s mission. You can find more out about these two women (and the other Saints of our faith) in the Episcopal publications called Lesser Feast and Fasts or in the newer, updated version, renamed Clouds of Witnesses. I would encourage you to take a look at them.
Monnica was born around 331 in North Africa. She was the mother of St. Augustine and is credited with his, and her husband’s, conversion to Christianity, which she had struggled to accomplish over many, many years. According to St. Augustine, while they were travelling in foreign counties, she fell desperately ill and after experiencing visions of her death, he thought she might fear being buried in a foreign land. She replied: “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”
The collect appointed for her feast day reads: O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we pray, and use us in accordance with your will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. I love that line: even our own kindred…It always give me pause.
Dame Julian was born about 1342 and is known as one of the church’s great mystics. At age 30 she became extremely ill and was given last rites. On the seventh day of her illness she had fifteen visions of the Passion. After recovering her health, she became a recluse, called an anchoress because she was walled into a small dwelling attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. The outside wall has a small window in it where she frequently was visited for counsel and spiritual advice by clergy and lay, including the famous mystic Margery Kempe. If any of you have been to the charming little city of Norwich you probably have seen it. I remember being amazed at how small the room was when I saw it. Perhaps you are familiar with her work, The Revelations of Divine Love? One of her best known quotes from which many have taken comfort and support is: “but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ It is a quote that she said she received directly from Christ during one of her visions.
The collect appointed for Dame Julian’s feast day reads: Lord God, in your compassion you granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As Augustine’s mother, Monnica and as Julian of Norwich demonstrated by the way they lived their lives, and as the Good Shepard Discourse in this morning’s Gospel reading teaches us, The Good Shepherd invites us to extend the loving embrace of Jesus Christ to everyone — believers and non-believers. Monnica and Julian knew that when they heard The Shepherd call them by name. They knew that their lives were not just about focusing on their personal, exclusive relationship with Jesus Christ. They knew it was also about evangelism: sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. We know that that ought to be a natural part of our own life of faith, that it is also our mission to share the Good News and to grow the Kingdom of God through our words and through our actions as followers of The Shepherd in the world today.
May we remember Monnica and Julian as two whose lives were beacons of God’s eternal and all-embracing love. Two women who turned to the Shepherd’s all-embracing love when they found themselves in the valley of the shadow of death, two women who found The Shepherd’s comfort and protection and two women who dwelt in the house of the Lord their life long.
Thanks be to God, Amen
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our will O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
The seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus isn’t all that great a distance. It certainly was not an unusual distance for people to travel during Jesus’ time. But, oh what a lot happened on that short walk to our two travelers from this morning’s Gospel.
Imagine how Cleopas and his unnamed companion must have felt as they walked home, back to Emmaus, from Jerusalem. Likely they were puzzled, depressed, and despondent, maybe even feeling betrayed and angry. They must have been at least a little afraid… after all Jesus, the person they thought was the Messiah, the one they expected to save them, the one they had been waiting for — was dead — he was going to redeem Israel, they had thought. But no, he was crucified for being a threat to those in power and now those who followed him also could be seen as a threat to the established authority. Imagine the turmoil they must have been in … and in addition to all of those emotions what must they have thought and felt after hearing that Jesus’s tomb was empty and that the women who had found the tomb empty had been told by angles that Jesus was actually alive! Yes, they must have been an emotional mess.
I imagine we’ve all been there at some point in our lives. Found ourselves confused, angry or disappointed and sad – maybe even a total emotional mess. We all have our own journey and I suspect have found ourselves on our own road to Emmaus at some point. Seven miles may not be a huge distance but it can be a huge expanse when we think we are alone and we can’t find our way out of the mess. That road can stretch on for what seems like forever to an horizon we don’t think we will ever reach.
Scholars have determined that there are, or I should say were, several villages named Emmaus in the first century, but the same road led to them all ….. and that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is still there today, albeit now a modern highway. It is a pretty desolate road, desert on either side with the occasional new illegal Israeli settlement interspersed, but mostly it is just a ribbon of road running through the desert. I remember thinking that it was sort of boring when I traveled down it in our tour bus….. It is a road worthy of matching the feelings of hopelessness and aloneness our two walkers must have been experiencing when they were walking in bewilderment and mourning Jesus’ death when they are joined suddenly by another…. And then they were not alone. They would never be alone again.
They did not recognize Jesus when he joins them on the road. We don’t know whybut for whatever reason, they didn’t. However, by the end of their meal they had recognized Jesus. I find the end of this Gospel, the part where we are told the two turn around after dinner and return to Jerusalem to tell others of their encounter with the risen Jesus, wonderfully reassuring. Right away they return to the community they had just left …. they have to share the good news…to affirm their stories with their friends in their community. Can’t you hear them saying, “He has not left us alone. He has risen indeed.”
You know there is a reason we all come together on Sundays — as a community—to hold and support each other with God’s love, in good and sad times — as part of the body of Christ — as Christ’s own. We journey together in this realm, on this pilgrimage of faith to reach our destination in Christ. This Gospel story moves from two despondent travelers walking alone, to their return with fire in their hearts, to be a part of creating the beginning of the Christian community.
And isn’t that just what we do when we read scripture together or when we hold each other in prayer and in love, and, when as a body, we take communion together? And isn’t that what we are doing today, when we welcome new members into the faith through the sacrament of baptism, as they begin their Christian journey? Today we will celebrate, I hope with fire in our hearts, 7 new Christians in their new birth in the Kingdom of God, as part of the body of Christ, which is the Church….
In just a few minutes we will all, as a community, promise to support these children in their life in Christ. I hope these kids never feel disoriented, afraid, or think they are alone … that they are never so overwhelmed that they can’t recognized that they are not alone……. But I hope if that day does happen, we will remember that we make promises today to help them. I hope we remember that even though they are beloved children of God, they undoubtedly will have moments when they find themselves on their own road to Emmaus and they will need others to hold them and remind them that they are not alone. We are there. As the body of Christ, the church is here. But most of all we need to help them know and believe that, as our two travelers discovered in today’s Gospel and as we read at the close of Matthew, and throughout our Gospels, Jesus is there and has promised that he will be with us always – to the end of time. No matter what.
Even when we think we will never see the light again, through our baptisms we are children of the light. And our journeys, even when those journeys include time spent traveling on our own Emmaus road, just as those early disciples in Emmaus and Jerusalem experienced the presence of the Risen Christ, so we recognize that through his Holy Spirit, he stands among us today. For we are Easter people and the love of Christ will lead us to each other and to God.
Thanks be to God.
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, O God, that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
So, here we are — at Maundy Thursday. It’s the day before the pain of Good Friday followed, by the emptiness of Holy Saturday. It’s the day that begins what constitutes the days of the Triduum – the most solemn time in our church year – days leading to Easter Sunday.
You may recall that during our worship these three days of the Triduum we have no dismissals. That’s because from the beginning of this service, through the Great Vigil on Saturday evening, our worship is one continuous service – three days of prayer.
But what is this day, what does it mean…..this day called Maundy Thursday? Last year I also preached the sermon for Maundy Thursday and I talked about the various definitions of the name for this service. I noted that the word Maundy in Old English meant ‘to give a commandment’ and that it came from the Latin word mandatum, to mandate. That is why this service, sandwiched between Wednesday of Holy Week and Good Friday, is called Maundy……
It was the evening when Jesus instituted what became our celebration of Holy Eucharist, the evening he gave the commandment, for this sacrament to be done for his remembrance. But in tonight’s Gospel, we didn’t hear about that mandatum, did we? Tonight, it is the other commandment Jesus gave that night that we hear about in John. It is the night he gave us the weighty mandatum, one that can be so easy not to follow: the mandatum, the commandment, to serve. …… And then he showed us how to serve — through love for each other when he washed his disciples’ feet.
Feet got dirty in Jesus’ day. Whether through the desert or through towns and cities, walking was the main mode of transportation. Although foot-washing was a rite of purity and a sign of hospitality shown to guests when they arrived, you may recall that only a slave, or servant, possibly a woman, would wash feet – in other words someone with little or no status or power. But before the beginning of the meal we call the Last Supper, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist and did the washing of feet, not a servant.
That particular foot-washing was far more than cleansing another’s feet, of course. …… It was about Love in Action. Jesus, a man of action, a man who healed – feed — raised the dead — transformed lives and performed great acts of miracles, also performed this lowly act of washing feet that night. And that night, those 2000 plus years ago, when he washed his disciples’ feet in love – an act with deep meaning, we see that none of us is too “great” to love and serve another.
But that makes it sound as if Jesus humbled himself intentionally but that isn’t the case — no Jesus didn’t put humility on and take it off as he did his robe when he got up from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. No, Jesus embodies humility.
Too often we serve others in an effort to appear good to those who see us. We often want to be seen as doing good, or we do good to enjoy the praise we can garner. We care what people think of us.
C.S. Lewis, the author and theologian, said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” And William Temple, one of our former Archbishops of Canterbury said something similar. He said: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” And then there is what Frederick Buehner, the theologian wrote: “Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. And if you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy. True humility”, (Buehner goes on to say) “doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.” …….. Frederick Buehner challenges us to question the way we think about what’s in our hearts.
Jesus’ entire ministry was steeped in humility. He performed miracles out of the love that was in his heart, not out of a desire to show himself as powerful or to draw attention to himself through low comedy. From the beginning, the story of Jesus was one of “downward mobility” – the newborn king in a manger, right through to his entrance into Jerusalem, as the Son of God riding not in majesty on a high horse as Pontius Pilot did on his entrance to Jerusalem, but on a borrowed donkey, as an itinerant preacher without a home of his own. Jesus Christ is the ultimate definition of humility. He breathed real life into service when he washed the disciples’ feet…… he did it with genuine love.
When I was in the Holy Land I saw a beautiful carving of a man obviously meant to be Jesus and he was washing the feet of a man dressed in many robes. I remembered that I had said last year when I preached on Maundy Thursday, we should maybe have a statue of a bowl and pitcher or of a basin and towel somewhere in our churches to remind us of this commandment….this mandatum to love and serve –so I thought I’d buy the carving for the church. It was gorgeous, hand carved from local olive wood, about this big. And it turned out to be about this expensive. It was outrageously expensive –– I didn’t buy it. But the day before I left, while I was in a little shop near our Pilgrim’s Hotel, I saw this little, inexpensive, machine carved statue. You probably can’t see it from where you are so let me tell you that it is not gorgeous, it is rather crude, the man’s feet Jesus is attempting to wash don’t even come close to reaching the basin, in fact, in this carving the man only has one leg – but you can tell that the statue is meant to have two. I fell in love with this visual reminder of Jesus’ humility – of Jesus washing the feet of this strange little man – this guy who, to me, represents the marginalized, the outcast, the other. I’m going to put it in the narthex and leave it there for a bit. I hope you’ll take a look at it…. and maybe you’ll like it a little bit too. And maybe it will remind us all that there is more to this ritual than just washing each other’s feet.
We don’t, of course, have to have our feet washed or to wash the feet of another tonight. Washing someone’s feet you know can make some feel a tad uncomfortable — although I submit to you that it is a ritual that helps us appreciate and experience humbleness — and that’s not such a bad thing to intentionally experience once in a while.
More importantly, this ritual reminds us to open our eyes to the suffering of others who are maybe sick or poor or lonely or hungry or homeless or running from their own personal sadness or crisis. It is more than a ritual to remind us to serve others by being nice to them – even if the niceness is genuine. It urges us, in that tactile awareness that comes through while touching another, to open our ears and hear the voices of hungry children, open our mouths and speak out against injustice and hate – and to move our feet to right those wrongs. This too is what Jesus asked us to do in remembrance of him that evening he had his last supper.
So, here we are …. at Maundy Thursday. The beginning of the Tridium — three powerful days when we Christians stare into the abyss.
But we are Easter people and we come out of and through the abyss with the help of prayer arriving at the joy of Easter Sunday. And in thanksgiving and with gratitude we remember the mandatum that we were given to love and serve. So…., in the name of Jesus Christ, let us each take off our robe, tie our towel around our waist and in humble service let us love one another.