Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 22, 2011
St. Michael and All Angels
Each gospel account of the resurrection gives an update on the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. In Mark, the women wonder who will roll it away. In Matthew, after the earthquake an angel rolls back the stone and sits on it. In Luke and John, the stone is rolled away before the first witnesses arrive. While Easter Sunday was a month ago, we are clearly not finished with stones. We move this morning from rolling a stone away from Jesus’ tomb to becoming living stones built into a spiritual house. The stoning of Stephen eerily resembles Jesus’ crucifixion. Stones appear throughout scripture. Jacob uses a stone for a pillow on a night that changes his life. When he awakens and realizes he met God in the night, he creates an altar using that stone. Moses carries two stone tablets down a mountain with God’s 10 commandments. Joshua builds a memorial using 12 stones to tell the story of God’s saving action when their children ask, “What do these stones mean?” It seems to me, when stones show up this many times in the lectionary on a Sunday, we need to pay attention. What are the stones telling us today?
In John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples. You can feel their anxiety. “Where are you going? We don’t know the way. If you will show us the way, we’ll be satisfied.” We all know that just hearing the next step isn’t going to satisfy. But that isn’t the point. Jesus is clearly not going to give them a blueprint or a gps. He isn’t willing to give them all the answers. He promises to be present with them and he tells them that not only will they continue the work he began; they will do even greater works.
It reminds me of God’s call to Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt and a life of slavery. Just a small thing, really. So Moses asks a fair question, “What kind of guarantee can I get if I take this on?” And this is all he gets…”I will be with you.” Seriously??? Is that the best you can do? We know the story. We know that it was enough, but we also know it was hard, extraordinarily hard. Here is Jesus offering that same less than comforting promise. “I’m going to be with God, but I’ll still be with you.” I think the disciples’ anxiety is completely justified…as is ours.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Actually, it’s a pretty big secret. We don’t know how to do church. Oh sure, we have a structure, we have forms for worship, we have policies that we follow. But we are in the same boat as those early disciples. We are asked to be the church in an ever-changing world…or to quote Peter, “you are God’s people in order that you may proclaim God’s mighty acts.” We saw where that got Stephen.
Jesus left the disciples to carry on his work in the world, but he didn’t leave them a manual or rulebook. They had walked with him and now he was asking them to continue healing, teaching, sharing the good news with others. When Peter says that we should be living stones and allow ourselves to be built into a spiritual house, I wonder what kind of openness it requires on our part to do that. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, it says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14) Can we allow that same Word to move into us?
I told you the big secret because being the church doesn’t mean having all the answers. It doesn’t mean following a plan, though plans aren’t all bad. It has a lot more to do with being a living organism that allows the Spirit to move through us. That doesn’t sound bad until we start to try and live open to the Spirit. Then it is tempting to become like Philip and say, “just show us the way and we’ll be satisfied.”
The power of the resurrection isn’t just that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is that we are given the power to be God’s people in the world. Jesus doesn’t need to be physically standing here for us to do God’s work. From the beginning, we have been given the power to be God’s people and no owner’s manual. You might say that we have a manual now. The Bible provides a powerful account of God’s saving presence over time and the promise that God continues to be with us, but it isn’t a play by play book with every answer we’ll ever need…including the date of the rapture. Instead, it teaches us that what is critical is forming a relationship with God and a community. It is through our relationship that we discover what is next.
We don’t begin a marriage knowing how to be married. We learn that in relationship with one another. We don’t become parents knowing all that we need to know about parenting. We learn as we go. We learn in relationship with our children. The same is true for the church. We learn how to be church in relationship with one another and with God. We learn how to care for our community not by reading the headlines in the paper, but by being in relationship with people outside the walls of our church.
Sixteen months ago we began ReImagine. We didn’t begin with the answers. We knew that it was time for St. Michaels to step back and reflect. This is how we did it. We invited everyone to join us. Everyone is still invited. We meet tomorrow night at 5:30. We gather regularly to get to know one another, to study scripture and to grow as a community. We recognized the central place of Eucharist at St. Michaels and decided to deepen our understanding of that. What does it mean to be fed at this table week after week? What does it mean when we walk out the doors? This year, we have focused on baptism and how it impacts us as individuals and as a community of faith. We began to talk to one another and over 300 conversations happened as a result. We are doing that again this year. I loved Christopher’s question a few weeks ago, “Have you ever been changed by a conversation?”
The disciples were. Moses was. We see over and over in scripture, lives changed by a conversation. Abraham and Sarah were open enough to talk to a stranger and discovered that they were going to have a baby in their old age. Jesus talked to people and they were healed from lifelong afflictions.
Last week, I heard Tom Long speak. He is considered one of the greatest preachers in the country right now. I was so impressed that I got his book called Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and read it right away. One story he tells is of Deborah, a bookstore clerk who shows up to open the store one morning and encounters a Hasidic Jew who asked if he could come in. Inside the man told her that he wanted to know about Jesus. Deborah took him to the section on Christianity and started to walk away when the man said, “No, I want to know about Jesus the Messiah. Don’t show me any more books. You tell me what you believe.” Deborah realized that for the first time in her life she was being asked to put her faith into words and here is what she said, “My Episcopal soul shivered. I gulped and told him everything I could think of …as much as I could sputter out in my confusion, in the dark.” (p. 21-22)
Last year when we proposed talking to each other one on one, many “Episcopal souls shivered”. Then we began talking to one another and it is changing the culture of this congregation. We are beginning another season of listening and I want to invite you to participate. Remember how Jesus connected with people? He talked to them.
In my first congregation, a small rural church in Oregon, I led a Lenten series on prayer. The folks of that congregation were largely in their 70’s and 80’s. Most of them had been in that same church their whole lives. One day I asked them about their own experience of prayer. It got very quiet. They looked at the floor and I said, “Have you ever talked about this before?” They said no. I said, “Where are you going to talk about this? At the gas station? The convenience store? The library? We are the church. This is where we talk about God.”
But we forget. We get so caught up in techniques and practices that we have to be reminded to talk about God. In the church, we focus on the business and miss many opportunities to share our lives with one another. For so many of us, the very idea of sharing our faith is terrifying. Lynna Williams wrote a short story called “Personal Testimony” about a 12 year old minister’s daughter at a Southern Baptist summer camp who earns hundreds of dollars one summer running a “ghost writing service for Jesus”. Charging $5-$20 she composes personal testimonies of conversion and repentance that they are expected to give each night at evening worship. (Testimony, p. 4) It makes me laugh to think about it, but then it makes me very sad to think that talking about God is terrifying… even in church. I think we’ve gotten it wrong.
One of our hang-ups is that if we speak about faith, others will discover our fears, our emptiness, our disappointment, and anything else that is less than perfect…as if we were the only ones who ever had that experience. When I was first ordained, I participated in a monthly retreat with a group of other newly ordained clergy. I remember in a dark room late one night talking with my roommate about my failures in ministry and all that I didn’t know and discovering she too had failed and she too had no idea what she was doing. And somehow that set me free.
God talk is not just talk about God, it is participation in the life of God. Tom Long says that to “speak truthfully about God is also to enter a world in which God is present and trusted. To speak about God is to be in relationship with God, which means speaking about God is more than speaking about God; it is also speaking for, in, with, and to God. Authentic speech about God, therefore, can be said to be a form of prayer.” (Testimony p. 11)
I believe that when people search for a church, they are looking for a place where God is alive. God comes alive in and through us. That never means that we have it all together. That never means that we know what we are doing. That never means success only. We get the idea that we need to be perfect before we ever open our mouth from the world around us, not from the Bible, which is full of people making mistakes and learning as they go.
Dorothy Day said “If I have ever achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Theologian Walter Bruggmann said, “The words with which we praise God shape the world in which we shall live.”
Our community is shaped by our words…not just the words of sermons and clergy. We are shaped by our conversations with one another. This is a small example, but when Christopher sends an email, he often addresses us “beloved of God”. I think he is shaping reality every time he uses those words. Of course, this isn’t the first time we have heard that God loves us. But how are we impacted each time we hear the words “beloved of God”? What would it mean to believe those words and to live as God’s beloved?
I’m guessing today you will want to run out as soon as church is over and pretend this sermon never happened. Brian has jokingly called this congregation “St. Michael and all introverts”. You certainly have the option of ignoring the call to share our lives with one another, but choosing to do so means that we all lose. Over and over again, we are called beyond the places of comfort and ease that we create for ourselves to risk being God’s people in the world. We cannot determine where this will lead, but we can be sure that God is among us reminding us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light.”
Long, Thomas G. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Peterson, Eugene. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing