Sermons from St. Stephen's
Sunday, May 24, 2020
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 1:6-14
6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11
12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
5:6Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
GOSPEL - JOHN 17:1-11
1After Jesus had spoken these words [to his disciples], he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
I think if the Seventh Sunday of Easter were given a title, maybe it should be called “The Festival of In-Betweens.” This past Thursday was the fortieth day of Easter, the Ascension of Our Lord. This was the day on which Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection. Immediately before his departure, Jesus tells the disciples that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” So Jesus is gone, and they’re just left waiting for the Spirit to come. When will that be? They don’t know. After Jesus is whisked away into the clouds, you can imagine them saying, “Well, what now? What in the world are we supposed to do?”
And you, St. Stephen’s, are also in an in-between time. You just finished your time of transition. Last Sunday you voted on who your new pastor is going to be. But the next chapter of your life has not yet begun. And all of this takes place while we are still looking at each other on ZOOM. What is this next chapter of your life supposed to look like? Where do we go from here? What now?
Each time a congregation calls a pastor, it is a unique event. This call process we just completed at St. Stephen’s was especially stressful. I couldn’t help but think of our recent experience when I heard the Second Reading refer to “fiery ordeals.” There were lots of challenges everyone faced. A number of St. Stephen’s members have left the congregation during and after the process. It was evident that people on both sides of the debate care deeply about the issues. There was deep conviction expressed from people who landed on the “nay” and “abstain” side of the vote. And there was deep conviction on the part of those of you who voted in favor of Pastor Mandy. As somebody who is relatively new to the culture of St. Stephen’s, it looked to me as if some of the energy in this call process was a carry-over from another fiery ordeal through which you passed nearly a decade ago. That, too, was a difficult, challenging, and painful event about many of the same issues you have been facing now. It seems to me that the pain of that earlier event made further conversation dangerous; it seemed impossible to talk without opening wounds. And I’m not sure whether you ever took the opportunity as a congregation to fully work through those issues in the past decade. It’s been a long in-between. So, we here at St. Stephen’s might feel very much at home standing next to the disciples, staring into heaven, and wondering, “Well, what now? What happens next?”
What does the church think we need to hear on this “Festival of In-Betweens”? Well, in today’s Gospel we continue to listen to Jesus speaking with his disciples the night before he is crucified. We are still in the Gospel of John. For the past two weeks we heard Jesus trying to explain his death to the disciples—trying to prepare them for what is about to happen. But in today’s Gospel, we jump a little further ahead in the events of that evening, and we get to overhear Jesus in prayer with his heavenly Father. This is really a remarkable event, and its significance might pass us by. But please think about what we are hearing in this text: we hear a conversation of God the Son with God the Father. We overhear communication inside the Holy Trinity. This is a leaked divine family conversation. And—you know what—they are talking about us!
Jesus says some remarkable things about us. He says that his disciples—and that includes us—have been entrusted with the very words of God. He recognizes that his disciples live in the very same relationship that Jesus has with his Father. Disciples are actually taken up into the life of God! Jesus says to his Father, “All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” The glory that belongs to disciples of Jesus is the very same glory that Jesus shares with the Father. What is glory? In the Bible, glory is the radiance and the specialness of God. The Hebrew word for “glory” is wonderful; it is kabod. And kabod means “heavy, weighty, important.” Disciples who are in Christ share in the weighty importance of God that goes back even before the Big Bang. Whoa! That’s really kabod; that’s heavy!
It's hard to wrap your head around that. The best you can do is just let yourself get carried along in the mysticism of this poetry. It’s like Jesus talking about “vines and branches”—about how his life is all tangled up in ours—but here it gets carried to a whole new cosmic level. All our lives, says Jesus—his and ours—are all tangled up in God! And all of this mystical poetry just builds and builds until Jesus finally gets us to the punchline—to the revelation and the reason why you and I have been taken into the story of God. And here it is: “that they may be one, as we are one.”
Uh-oh. I think we may be in trouble.
Right now, it doesn’t feel like the word one describes us very well. We’ve just come through a vote after a very impassioned debate. One side appears to have been “victorious” and the other side thinks it has lost. And it’s obvious that there are a lot of deep feelings and maybe more than a few wounds on both sides. We may not feel as if we are “one” right now.
But this issue about the unity of the church isn’t just about us here at St. Stephen’s. It’s really about the totality of the Christian enterprise—the “whole Christian church on earth.” It’s hard to describe the church as “one.” The history of the church, beginning very shortly after Jesus’ ascension into heaven—is a huge story of arguments and splits and fracturing and divisions. The church does not appear to be one at all! It’s a loose collection of thousands of smaller groups, all claiming to be one in Christ while we argue and debate and very often judge each other. Each argument we have seems to end up splitting us further. So here’s the question with which we need to wrestle this day: How can the church be one?
Very often we Christians think we will be one when we all agree. The church has spent lots and lots of energy trying to get everyone to agree. And, yes, agreement is essential for parts of our common life. Some things simply come down to yes or no. It’s that way when it comes to deciding whether someone will be your pastor; you don’t get to have only a part of a person come to serve you as your shepherd. So you have to find a way to make decisions. Either you have to have a bishop who picks your pastor on your behalf and settles the arguments right then and there, or you do what we do in the ELCA: we vote, and the majority’s decision is final. We can make it a little less chaotic by raising the majority to two-thirds, but in the end, people often think of themselves as winners or losers, especially if the decision seems controversial.
But there’s an interesting thing about seeking unity in the church through agreement: it simply doesn’t seem to work very well. Through the centuries, the more the church insisted on agreement, the more divisions took place because people often disagree. Forcing agreement ended up fracturing the church.
As I said before, some issues need agreement, and when they do, we simply have to do the best we can. But when Jesus prays that we may be one as he and the Father are one, I don’t think he has agreement in mind. If you don’t base the unity of the church on agreeing, then what will hold us together? Well, we’re in John’s Gospel, right? And in this book the answer often comes back to what Jesus says on the night before his death: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The unity of the church will be found only when we are able to love each other as we have been loved by God in Christ.
People who love each other, really love, are capable of staying together even when they disagree. When we love each other, we value the other person for who they really are—not what we demand for them to be. That is how God loves us. God loves diversity—just look at all these different faces and personalities in these Hollywood Squares! A church that finds its unity in love will begin to celebrate the diversity of the people in the community. We don’t all think alike—isn’t that wonderful? The Holy Spirit’s wisdom comes to me not when you think the way I do but when I am surprised by the insight or the experience that sets you apart from me. We hear the Spirit’s voice not in everyone speaking the same thing in a monotone but—as we will discover next week—when a hundred different languages are all jabbering at the same time.
So, what now? What happens next?
If unity is found in love, then we don’t have to wait until we all agree before we can be one. If we love as we have been loved, we will discover that all our diversity and our different ways of looking at things will become for us the very channel by which the Holy Spirit works in and through us to make the life of Jesus go more deeply into the world. Here’s the bottom line: We can be one, we are one—here, now—in the love and in the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, May 17, 2020
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 17:22-31
22Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 3:13-22
13Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
GOSPEL - JOHN 14:15-21
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
"God in Hiding"
Today’s readings suggest that God is in hiding. And each of the three readings tells us a little more about what that might mean.
In the First Reading, we see Paul in Athens. He’s standing in front of the Areopagus, a large outcrop of rock on top of the hill called the Acropolis. Looking around, Paul can see some of Athens’s most magnificent temples built to honor a whole pantheon of gods. Over there is the temple to Athena, the patron god of the city. And over here is the magnificent Parthenon. In other words, Paul is standing in the midst of the shrines of polytheistic paganism. That is a strange place for a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ to stand. As a Jew and a Christian, Paul knows and believes the very first and most important of the Ten Commandments, where Yahweh says, “You shall have no other gods.” And here they are!—surrounding Paul in all their pagan diversity.
Paul is here on the Acropolis because he wants to introduce Athenians to Jesus. And the way he makes the introduction is absolutely astounding. He says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are….” It’s almost as if he is commending them for their idolatry! Maybe he says it tongue-in-cheek, as he turns to gaze all around him, looking at all the temples—as if to say, “Boy, you guys have lots of gods—you must be extremely religious!” But to have Paul phrase it as a kind of compliment—well, that’s almost too much! Wouldn’t you expect Paul to point out their sin and judge them for their idolatry? To tell them they’ve got it all wrong? But he doesn’t. Instead, he goes on to suggest that God is accessible to all people everywhere. And he quotes two of their philosopher poets, Epimenides and Aratus, to prove it. But what is most astounding is that Paul finds Jesus here on the Acropolis, and he suggests that the Athenians have been worshipping him for some time, at an altar dedicated “To an Unknown God”! When you come to this capital of ancient paganism, you don’t expect to find Jesus hiding out there. But, lo and behold, there he is.
God is hiding in today’s Second Reading, too. The author of First Peter suggests that God may be hiding out in suffering. Suffering is a terrible experience. If you are sick, or imprisoned, or if your reputation is being torn apart by your enemies the way it was for early Christians, that pain is bad enough. But what makes suffering really terrible is that it makes us feel that God is absent—missing or hiding. Suffering people often cry out, “God, where have you gone! Why have you turned your back on me?”
But Jesus, too, knew the God-forsakenness of suffering. Do you remember his cry from the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Through Jesus’ cross, God knows what it is like to suffer! In Jesus, God knows God-forsakenness! God is no stranger to suffering. God can actually draw near us in the pain of suffering, hiding out in our pain to surprise us—just as God surprised us by raising the crucified Jesus to life again—so that even in suffering God is near us. And if that is true, then nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, for God is hiding out everywhere!
What about today’s Gospel? Where is God hiding out there? In this reading, Jesus is speaking to his disciples the night before his crucifixion. He knows that they are not at all prepared for what is about to happen to him…or to them. He tries to tell them as gently as he can what is about to take place: that there is a day coming (the very next day, in fact!) when they will no longer see him. He will be taken from them in the most violent way and they will suddenly find themselves alone, without him. They will feel orphaned—abandoned by Jesus and his God.
And even though God will raise Jesus from the dead, and disciples will see him for a little while, a day is coming further down the road when he will be gone for good. That is where we find ourselves here today, in the twenty-first century. Jesus—even Resurrected Jesus—is no longer around, nowhere to be seen. He is not here to preach a sermon, or offer a course online, or to be available for an interview on the nightly news. He seems to have gone into hiding.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says to disciples who are about to feel a tectonic plate shift in their souls. If they will not be orphans, we might expect that there will be a step-father or adoptive mother to care for them. But Jesus’ promise is far more radical than that. He claims that a day is coming soon when, he says, “I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Jesus will come back to them not to be beside them but to be within them!
Where do you find the Risen Christ? Where is Jesus hiding? He is within you! He is among you, working in your communal interconnections with each other so that you can be his Body for the world! Where is Jesus hiding now? Well, he is alive and well and living in Northglenn, Colorado—for he is present in you!
But it is really important to join the Gospel for today to what we learn from the other two readings this day. God’s presence in you is part of God’s presence in the world. What Paul says to the Athenians and what the Second Reading says to its readers who are undergoing persecution must also be the truth of Jesus’ presence in our lives as well.
Because Jesus is within you, then you should expect you will never be too far away from suffering. That is how this story works. Sometimes it may be your own suffering, as it was for the early Christians addressed by today’s Second Reading. But Jesus hides out in suffering in another surprising way as well. Later this year, we will hear a story from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus will say, “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a sheep or a goat in this story—a good guy or a bad guy—everyone says the same thing in surprise: “Jesus, we never saw you there in suffering people!” And Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”
Jesus is hiding not only in the community that bears his name. He is also to be encountered in the people all around us who need our help. Think of Jesus hiding out in this pandemic and all the suffering it brings! Think of him hiding out in doctors and nurses who have to carry the burden of this disease for our sake. Think of him in first responders, in grocery store clerks who put themselves at risk for us. Think of Jesus in all the fragile and fearful people in hospital beds and on ventilators. Think about him in the voice of your neighbor who calls you because he’s frustrated and out of work and doesn’t know where to turn. If we don’t encounter and care for suffering people around us, then there is a part of Jesus we will never meet.
We also need to remember what Paul is saying to the Athenians on the Acropolis. It’s not a matter of Christians battling every false god they can find. It doesn’t work that way. God is hiding out in the places where we do not expect to find God. Please remember that earlier in his life Paul was convinced that Christians were heretics who needed to be judged, stomped out, and eliminated. And then Paul met Jesus, who called him to be a disciple and apostle, and that changed everything. It is this same Paul who would explain how in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The work of God in Christ is not a project to sort people into good guys and bad guys. Jesus is the invitation for the whole world to come together in God.
Paul knows what Jesus taught—that all the commandments of God are really only about one thing—the new commandment that Jesus declares the night before he dies: “You must love one another as I have loved you.” Paul has a word for that; it is called grace. Grace means that you have been loved unconditionally by God. God puts no barriers in your way, no hurdles for you to jump over, no preconditions you must satisfy first to qualify for divine love. You are loved. Period. And now you are free to organize all your life around that ultimate reality. You are invited to live by Jesus’ command: to love others just as you have been loved. Let that love be the center and the shape of your life. Let Christ live within you, so that you can be a surprise to yourself and to everyone around you—living, embodied grace that comes in the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, May 10, 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 7:55-60
55Filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 2:2-10
2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
GOSPEL - JOHN 14:1-14
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
"I Am...You Are"
There is a nice counterpoint happening in today’s readings. In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” And the First Letter of Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.... Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” I want to take a few minutes to think about how those two readings connect with each other. One says, “I am.” The other says, “You are.” And together they raise a very important question: “Who will we be?”
Jesus says, “I am the way.” In Greek, Jesus says he is the “hodos.” It means, “I am the road” or “I am the highway” or “I am the journey.” It’s a wonderful word picture. A road is an incredible piece of engineering that allows people to get from Point A to Point B. The Romans in Jesus’ day were astounding engineers. Rome was able to create an empire because these people knew how to build roads—highways that crisscrossed the Mediterranean world, roads that allowed people thousands of miles apart to be able to get to each other and be with each other and stay connected. Their engineering was so skilled that you can go all over Europe today and see roads the Romans built over two thousand years ago.
“I am the road,” says Jesus—“the path.” Roads are built for a purpose. They are not an end in itself. You don’t look at a road or think about a road or admire a road. No, for a road to be a road somebody’s got to travel on it. So when Jesus says “I am a highway” what does he have in mind? Who is supposed to travel on this road? Well, I think it’s you and me! So you see, right from the beginning it works this way: “I am...you are.” Who Jesus is defines who we are supposed to be, what it means for us to be “people of God.”
If Jesus is a highway then it means that you and I are on a journey; we are people “on the move.” This image of Jesus as a road was so powerful that long before Christians were called “Christian” they were known as “The People of the Way.” “Being Christian” implies that we are involved in an unfolding adventure. Our history, our past, our stories are important—every highway has some kind of beginning; we have come from someplace, and that matters. Where have you come from? Today is Mothers’ Day, and it reminds us that each of us has a history. There are important people who launched us on our journeys. It’s good to have a day when we remember and acknowledge how we got to where we are this day—the important ways that our parents have shaped us and helped to define our path.
Every highway also has a destination. Our identity has a future as well. A road takes you somewhere. If Jesus is the highway upon which we are invited to travel, it means that Jesus has tied up his identity and his destination with our own. Jesus has a future—and that future is you and me, us together—dreaming the future of Jesus, the unfolding adventure, the way! Jesus says that same thing another way in today’s Gospel; he says, “Where I am, you will be also.” Where we are, there Jesus is, for we are now his body, his presence. We go where Jesus is. We take Jesus into the world because we are his people. “I am…you are.”
Jesus also says, “I am the truth.” We might say, “Well of course, Jesus is the truth.” Jesus is God, and God must be the truth—right? Would we expect Jesus to say, “I am the lie”? But please think about these words for a moment: “I am the truth.” He does not say, “I speak the truth” or “I will reveal the truth to you.” No, he says, “I am the truth.” In other words, the truth is a person! What can that possibly mean?
At a trial, the bailiff asks the witness, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Truth is what really happened, what really is. It is accuracy. The truth is reliability, the assurance you can trust the results. Truth isn’t a matter of opinion. It doesn’t matter what I want the truth to be or what I’d like the truth to be or how I spin the truth to get it to work for my predetermined objectives. The truth cannot be manipulated to serve someone’s purposes or goals and still remain the truth. Jesus says, “I am the truth,” and that suggests that the truth has to do with him and with how I relate to him. The truth is about relationships. The truth is about trustworthiness. Can I trust you, Jesus? And he says, “Absolutely!”
And here’s the part that really takes your breath away. He is the truth because he is undeniably, absolutely, unconditionally for you. “You mean so much to me,” Jesus says, “you are so important to me that I would die for you. Why, I have done it already! This is what you mean to me. This is...Truth! You can stake your life on it. You can stake the future on it. Stick with me,” says Jesus, “and you will get from wherever you find yourself right now all the way to Point B!”
The truth that is Jesus also becomes the truth that is us. “I am…you are. Who we are—our very identity—is defined by who Jesus is.
Did you pay attention to that First Reading today? It’s about Stephen, the first deacon in the church and the first martyr to die for his faith. This is Saint Stephen! St. Stephen’s, this is you! Of course, it’s important that Stephen dies because he is a follower of Jesus. But what is just as important is how Stephen dies. Did you happen to notice how many details in the story of Stephen’s death mirror the things we heard on Good Friday about the way Jesus died? Stephen prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And when Jesus dies, he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” As Stephen is dying, he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when Jesus dies, he says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus died…and Stephen died. But Stephen died in a way that looked very much like Jesus’ death. “I am…you are.” Stephen is a disciple of Jesus, and that means that his identity and Jesus’ identity are fused together.
Jesus makes one more point; he says, “I am the life.” The one who is the journey and the truth must also be the life. He is so truly “Life” that not even death can overcome him. He is the light shining in the darkness, that the darkness cannot extinguish. He is the Word that defines everything—life, space, time, the beginning and the ending—the Word that makes the definitions and calls everything into being. He is the very definition of what it means to be fully, abundantly alive.
Journey! Truth! Life!
I am! You are!
It is mystical, almost magical. It says so much more than we can ever comprehend. We cannot control it—not even by understanding it. We must simply let it be, let it become. “Let there be...the same power of God’s language that creates light and sun and moon and days and seasons and a universe. Let there be history and a story. Let there be mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, people who care. Let there by a church named St. Stephen’s and let it become what it is meant to be. Let it be Jesus’ presence here in this place. Let there be people who have discovered that the truth about themselves comes in the shape of a cross and is as surprising as an opened, empty tomb. Let this community become a highway for our God. Let it be claimed by baptismal water and sent into this world with good news—the unbelievable truth that God is making all things new! The truth that the dead are being raised to life—Here! Now! That there is no such thing as a hopeless situation! Let these saints be filled with the truth that is a person, that they may be a sign to their neighbors and families and friends and even to their enemies. Let them dive so deeply into Jesus’ story that they become him! Let them be so fully alive in him that the power of his resurrection life radiates through them and from them like gigantic, cosmic lightning bolts—raising the dead to life! Feeding the hungry! Filling the world with music and song! Let them be the sign that God is raising the world to a new hope—a hope that encircles this globe and every person in it! Let this people be flung into the world, to so many different places and adventures, and even across the street to their despairing neighbors. Let them be filled with hope and good news because they are the highway, the journey for God. And they have encountered the truth and it has made them abundantly alive and lively. And let it all happen in the name of the one who says “because I am, you are”—this name that makes all good things happen, the name which is above every name in heaven and on earth, the name that is our life and our hope, the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, May 3, 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 2:42-47
42[The baptized] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 2:19-25
19It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
GOSPEL - JOHN 10:1-10
[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
"In It Together"
This is Good Shepherd Sunday—the day every year when we get to hear the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, where Jesus describes himself as “the Good Shepherd.” But if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, I guess that implies that we are the sheep. What do you think about being a sheep? Sheep, after all, don’t get very good press. People keep thinking of them as “dumb sheep.” Even the Bible doesn’t help much, picturing lambs as naively being led silently to the slaughter. Is that really who we are?
Here’s some important information about sheep: Sheep were among the first mammals to be domesticated by our earliest human ancestors. Not just any animal can be domesticated. For real domestication to take place, the animal must be a social creature—living in community. In addition, this animal community must be structured so that the community looks to a particularly strong animal in the group as the Alpha, the leader. Sheep became domesticated because they were willing to give allegiance to a human Alpha. Sheep seem comfortable doing that. So do dogs. There are other mammals that do not or cannot. Cats deign to live in our houses with us, but technically they are not domesticated. Anyone who lives with a cat knows that we never function as an Alpha for them. Once a cat moves in, the house belongs to her and she permits us to live with our illusions that somehow we are still in charge.
But it’s different with sheep. Sheep are willing to let us take control. When Jesus talks about sheep “knowing the shepherd’s voice” he’s really talking about domestication. I suspect quite a few of us Americans wouldn’t appreciate being domesticated. We picture ourselves as people who possess specific freedoms and rights, and most of us think we are at our best when we are independent. But even if that is what we tend to believe, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way life really is. The truth of the matter is that we are always being pushed, bent, prodded, and led into this decision or that. The subtle and not-so-subtle forces of marketing economics are constantly convincing millions of us that we need to have this and we must have that, and once we get it, before long we are easily convinced that it is no longer in fashion or it’s useless and we must now quickly turn our attention to the next gadget, gizmo, or fad. In this “free marketplace” nothing is free at all—the products are not free and neither is our will. All of us get herded around like dumb sheep, spending our money to make other people rich, depleting the resources of the earth, and leaving behind tons and tons of garbage and pollution. Even when some of us try to step out from the crowd—to be different, to make a statement—we often do it in groups, with specific shared forms of “protest” or “alternative fashion.” We definitely are social animals; really, we are dumb sheep.
Jesus knows that for human beings the issue is never whether or not we will be sheep. The more critical issue is this: Who will be your leader? Who will be shepherd? Years ago Bob Dylan sang it eloquently: “You’re gonna’ have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna’ have to serve somebody.” As Jesus analyzes the situation in today’s Gospel he notes a fundamental difference between his style of shepherding and that of his competitors. It has to do with how you understand the sheep pen and the gate. Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus calls his competitors “thieves” and he says this about them: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” The difference between thieves and the Good Shepherd all “hinges” on how you understand the gate—the “door”—of the sheepfold. For the thief, the gate (if he uses it at all) operates as a one-way trap—sheep go in and they never come out again. And why? Because for thieving shepherds, sheep are a commodity, and one way or another they’re going to market. The sheep exist not for their own sake but to make someone else rich. Sound familiar? But Jesus is a different kind of gatekeeper because in his sheepfold, sheep come and go. The sheepfold isn’t a holding pen for sheep on the way to the butcher. Rather, the sheep pen is a place of temporary shelter and safety, a place where sheep stay between happy jaunts to the good pasture.
In Jesus’ story, if the sheep know and respond to the voice of the shepherd it is because they recognize that the shepherd has their best interests at heart. If we are sheep in Jesus’ flock it is because there is the sound of safety in his voice. His style of shepherding demonstrates that his deepest care and concerns are for the sheep and their welfare. A little later in this chapter he states it eloquently: “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.” The critical item, then, in the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep is signaled by the shepherd’s voice. The good shepherd, says Jesus,
...calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
In today’s First Reading we get to see a snapshot of the life of the early Christian community. We are told that the baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. There are several important items to notice here. First, members of the community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” I really think this is a matter of recognizing and listening to the shepherd’s voice. It’s not simply that apostles did teaching and members were expected to learn the right doctrines. Rather, “the apostolic teaching” is actually the voice of the Good Shepherd being handed down within the community. This community, shaped by the voice of the shepherd, stands as a challenge and a radical alternative to the frantic individualism and consumerism of our own culture. This early Christian community was truly a flock, a gathering in which the common good took precedence. We are told the members “were together and had all things in common.” They shared life and their possessions. The cared for each other. I suspect in our day they would wear masks in public and always observe social distancing because they care about others more than their own personal liberties. Early Christianity wasn’t merely an experiment in communal living; it was, rather, an organic living out of what it means to organize the life of the flock around the voice of the Good Shepherd. In Greek it says they practiced “a fellowship—a koinonia—of the breaking of bread and prayers.” Their common life circled around eucharist and prayer. They didn’t just share or take Holy Communion; they were a Holy Communion. At the heart of their life was the story—the voice—of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep: body broken and blood poured out. Eucharist wasn’t just a “Sunday morning” reality but spilled over into the routines of everyday life: “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” Really, every meal was a eucharist—every meal an opportunity for thanksgiving, for sharing life with each other and with God. The door to the sheep fold was always open, and they went in and out with joyful hearts.
Jesus says the sheep know his voice. What is it in the voice of Jesus that will make us want to follow and be part of his flock? The voice of Jesus is filled with radical freedom. It is the freedom of one who has learned that he is able to lay down his life for those he loves. Wouldn’t you like to be like that? Wouldn’t you like to know that kind of radical freedom—to be able to do anything and everything for those you love? Sheep follow this shepherd because what they really are saying is, “I want to be like him! I want to live like him!” They really do look to Jesus as their Alpha. Jesus is free to live because he is free to die—free to give his life away for those he loves. Our living can only be as good as our dying—our willingness to love and give ourselves away—and Jesus lives life with a radical freedom that calls us to follow.
The other feature that attracts me to Jesus is the expansive dimensions of his love. There is always room for more—other sheep not of this fold but, as far as Jesus is concerned, they are already a part of his flock. He says the same thing a little differently at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The whole world and everyone in it is his sheep pen and his love claims all the sheep. This love is stronger than death—so strong that once you have been embraced by it, once you are taken into this flock—nothing can separate you from the love of God. This love is so bold it invites us to become like him. The freedom and security of his two-way gate encourage us to go out and come in, to risk ourselves with others, even to suffer unjustly as he did because that, too, is a part of the identity he gives us. That is what it means to belong to the flock of Jesus, to be his sheep, to receive life as this gracious gift that comes, always, in his name.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, April 26, 2020
The Third Sunday of Easter (A)
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 2:14a, 36-41
14aPeter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed [the crowd], 36“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 1:17-23
17If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
GOSPEL - LUKE 24:13-35
13Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This coming week we will find ourselves at a very significant cusp in our pandemic journey. We have lived as companions of the COVID-19 virus now for over two months. We have seen it not only take 200,000 lives around the world but in our own country we have watched it kill 50,000 Americans and put 26 million of us into unemployment. We have been part of a huge experiment that no one alive has ever witnessed—the attempt to cut us off from each other in order to protect our lives. Look! Here we are this morning worshiping together on ZOOM! But now, all of that may start to change this coming week, as quite a few states in our country attempt to lift some of the bans and orders we have been using, and as we try, little by little, to restart the economy.
I don’t think this is just the stuff of Nightly News. I think today’s Scripture readings suggest this is also a moment of incredible spiritual importance for us. And I hear the Word of God this day asking us to think deeply about what is going on all around us. There is a common theme that runs through all three of today’s readings. They place before us the possibility that we live in a critical time. There’s a great Greek word for that. None of today’s readings use it, but the idea of it is everywhere. The word is kairos. It is one of the Greek words for “time.” A kairos is not clock-time or calendar-time. A kairos is a critical time—a once-in-a-life-time. A kairos is a time that asks us to make some important decisions and resolves. And each of today’s three readings has something to say about what that might mean.
In the First Reading from the Book of Acts, we are continuing to hear Peter preach to the crowd that had assembled for Pentecost in Jerusalem, just fifty days after Jesus had been crucified. Peter is speaking to many of the same people who, just weeks before, had assembled as a mob and were shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Peter’s sermon to them is one of the gutsiest pieces of preaching ever attempted. He says to this crowd, that had been so recently incited to violence, “You crucified Jesus. God raised him from the dead.” There is lots to unpack in this!
First, when the crowd had screamed “Crucify him!” weeks earlier, we need to remember that screaming this slogan was a political action. Good Friday wasn’t, first and foremost, an episode out of a Bible pageant. This crowd was fueled to fever pitch by political passion. It had all the energy and anger of a raucous political rally. The crowd had turned on Jesus because he had frustrated their political dreams—that Jesus would lead them in liberation from their Roman oppressors. Their disappointment and disillusionment from decades of hard times boiled over into calls for violence. What Peter is claiming in his sermon is that through the resurrection of Jesus, God had overturned their political choice in demanding Jesus’ crucifixion.
So where’s the kairos in all this? It shows up in one very powerful phrase. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, says that the crowd was “cut to the heart.” What a tremendous phrase that is! Cut to the heart. It means that Peter’s preaching had forced them to re-evaluate their former political choices. As Peter lays out for them the implications of the choices they had made, there was a kind of collective gasp. “Oh my God!” they were thinking. “What have we done? And what will we do now?”
Peter tells them what they need to do to address this kairos in which they now find themselves. He can describe it with one simple word: “Repent.” This, too, is a great Greek word: metanoia. Metanoia means to change your position, to have a new heart and a new mind, to go beyond the way you had previously been thinking. There is a close connection between being cut to the heart and changing your mind. Often it’s not easy to really, fundamentally change your way of thinking. We don’t have serious second thoughts unless we absolutely have to. Very often it’s pain that forces us to rethink our most basic convictions. So here’s the first set of questions we need to consider. Have you been cut to the heart? Have you ever experienced a time when your options ran out for you so dramatically that you had to think things through from the beginning again? Is this perhaps where all of us find ourselves right now in the midst of this pandemic? And could God hide out in such extreme landscapes, inviting us to be raised from the dead?
OK, on to the Second Reading. There is an interesting phrase here that invites us to push this line of thought even further. Here, too, the author of First Peter is inviting his readers to think deeply about the meaning of Jesus’ story, and he says this: that Jesus was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. He also tells them they have been ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors. Like Peter in his Pentecost sermon, so this Second Reading says that we are at a great crossroads, a cusp. In this present moment we find ourselves framed between the ultimate bookends—between God’s plans set before the Big Bang, and finding ourselves in the moments before “the end of the ages,” before Judgment Day. That is what a kairos is like. It invites us to get back to two sets of basic question. First, what are the basic principles—those things “from the beginning”—that come before any decision or action? In other words, what is universally true, hard-wired into God’s plans for the universe from its foundation? And second, when we must give a final account of who we are and what we did—when we come to the final judgment—what kind of world will we want to have constructed? What kind of world do we want to live in? The author of First Peter can answer both sets of questions with one word: love. He says we must have genuine mutual love, love one another from the heart. Love for our neighbor is the test that shows whether we have been “born anew of imperishable seed.”
In todays’ Gospel, these two disciples walking with a stranger do not, at first, know they are at a kairos point. Far from it! They are dejected, depressed, disillusioned, and worn out. You can see it in their shuffling gate and drawn faces. They’ve had it. The only energy they seem able to muster is their incredulity over the lack of awareness of their traveling companion about everything that has been filling the headlines the past couple of days. And this stranger invites them to dive into their despair by asking them the most simple question, having only two words; he asks, “What things?” It is an invitation for them not only to tell what has been happening but, especially, what has been happening to them! His invitation for them to recount the past three day’s headlines is, at the same time, the excuse for them to pour out their hearts to him. With these two words—What things?—it’s as if he is saying, “Don’t just tell me what has happened; tell me what it has been doing to you.” And they do tell him! All the pain, disillusionment, and brokenness comes gushing out of them in a flood of emotion. Those two words—What things?—shows that he’s not just willing to walk the seven miles with them and share a supper with them; he is also willing to let their broken dreams be his own, to share in their disillusion and pain. He is broken with them, broken for them. And that is why, when he breaks the bread at supper, they know who the stranger is! He is the one broken for us!
Where are we, now, on this Eastertide journey in the year 2020? Where are we as we approach this important kairos moment with this deadly COVID travelling companion? What do we want to happen next? Do we just want to go back to business as usual, take up our routines as if this virus hasn’t happened, as if the virus is irrelevant? First of all, that could prove to be deadly. We know that from the last time a novel virus appeared in 1918. Americans did a fairly decent job of quarantining and protecting themselves and by the summer, it appeared that life had gotten back to normal. They went about business as usual, and when they did, the virus came back at them with unimaginable fury. The tens of thousands of deaths they experienced in the first wave became millions of deaths globally because the passion for personal liberties had become more important than love for neighbor, igniting a firestorm of sickness and death.
Do we want to take COVID to heart? In the past few weeks the pandemic has shown an honest picture of what our society is like. We have seen the weakness of a society structured by medicine-for-profit. Our failure and inability to care or support the weakest among us is staring us down. But we have seen other amazing wonders: jelly fish swimming in the canals of Venice, cities strangling in smog suddenly filled with clean air. Do we really want to go back to the way things were? Will we be return to our former futile ways or could we possibly be willing to be changed by this critical moment in which we find ourselves?
Jesus invites us to think about it, and then he immediately disappears to give us space where we can make up our minds. We have a kairos. What shall we do? Let’s think about that this week—in the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, April 19, 2020
The Second Sunday of Easter (A)
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 2:14a, 22-32
14aPeter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed [the crowd], 22“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
29“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’
32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
SECOND READING - 1 PETER 1:3-9
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
GOSPEL - JOHN 20:19-31
19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
"The Outcome of Your Faith, the Salvation of Your Souls"
How was your week? One thing’s for sure: it’s not Holy Week! Whew! It felt good to catch my breath this week. But I must admit, once the adrenaline stopped flowing after Easter, a kind of heaviness set in. I realize that one of the things that was nice about Holy Week and Easter is that it gave me something to focus on besides the pandemic. And I realize now that the big day is over, there is a hollowness in the world, and I don’t quite know what to do about that. Is it the same for you, perhaps?
Our cousins from England—the same people who could coin the phrase “Mind the gap” that we used on Easter—have a great name for this Second Sunday of Easter. Anglicans call it Low Sunday. That makes sense to me. Many years in my ministry as a parish pastor, on this Second Sunday of Easter when I would stand in the pulpit of my church, I could look out at my congregation and really appreciate the fine hews and wood tones of all the pews. Just a week before, on Easter Sunday, bodies of real human worshipers had made the wood invisible. On the Second Sunday of Easter, it’s radically different. I can see the wood again! Low Sunday, indeed. There is a low in attendance and a lowering of excitement. And therefore, there are some very good Low Sunday questions to consider. For example, does Easter have any practical use in a world like ours, shattered by pandemic? In many ways, this pandemic is a little like Holy Week. We focus on what is immediate, the big headlines right in from of our noses. But a tremendous sea of bigger problems are waiting to confront us once we have flattened the curve on this outbreak. What will the world be like after this? What will be the new normal? And does Easter, really, have anything to say about that?
I think the apostle Thomas is an excellent guide into the landscape of Low Sunday and beyond. Everyone else in the Easter story is caught up in the giddiness and ecstasy of Jesus’ resurrection, but Thomas has his doubts. Christians often wag their heads and feel superior to pathetic “doubting Thomas.” But I consider Thomas to be an excellent theologian and a helpful companion as we consider whether Easter has any real implications for the world in which we find ourselves now.
So…Thomas is rather surly about Jesus’ resurrection. Why is that? Well, first of all, he is an outsider to the action. Do you know what that’s like? Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever been at a party where everyone else there has seen the same favorite movie or sitcom that you haven’t seen, and they go on and on and on with insider language and jokes, quoting this line or that? It gets old pretty fast. As the disciples chatter away about seeing Jesus alive again, recounting all the details, what Thomas hears is this: “Too bad, Thomas! Everything is different now. The universe has changed, and you just happened to miss it!”
But Thomas isn’t just bitter. He also has deep insight into what is going on around him, and he latches on to what may be the most important part of the disciples’ encounter with the Risen Christ: Jesus’ wounds. When Jesus appears to the ten on Easter evening, John tells us that Jesus
…showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
They recognize Jesus by his wounds. This person standing in front of them isn’t a ghost or a dream. This is really Jesus! Look, there are the marks of his crucifixion still in his flesh! But for Thomas, this is a puzzle. And it should be for us, too, if we stop a second to think about it. What in the world is Jesus doing with wounds on this side of the resurrection? Very often we like to think of death and resurrection in terms of before and after—as if Easter is some great divide, and on the “after” side is a foretaste of heaven. On the “before” side of Easter we find Good Friday, and suffering, and the cross. Being on the “after” side of Easter as we are, we expect to enjoy eternal life, and joy, and the happily-ever-after. But Jesus messes all that up! He insists on dragging his wounds into the happily-ever-after. What are these doing here?!? Aren’t we supposed to be done with all that pain?
It’s not so much that Thomas has trouble believing that Jesus has come back from the dead. That could have been his issue: dead people are supposed to stay dead, so believing in resurrection is a stretch already. If that’s the proof he needs, Thomas would ask to feel Jesus’ pulse or test if he’s really breathing. But for Thomas to believe in Easter, he needs more than that; he wants to know that the one who was crucified has come to life. Our English translation of Thomas’s words doesn’t quite capture his passion. The problem comes when the translation says that Thomas wants to put his fingers and hands on Jesus’ wounds. But that’s more polite than what Thomas actually says in the Greek words John uses to capture his thoughts. Thomas doesn’t just want to touch the wounds. More accurately, Thomas says he wants to shove his finger into the nail marks and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. His language is aggressive. It is filled with hurt and disappointment. Thomas wants to reopen Jesus’ wounds. Why?
I think Jesus’ crucifixion has hurt Thomas very, very deeply. It’s almost as if Thomas is saying, “Jesus, look what you’ve done! We were counting on you! We were counting on your promises! You said you were the friend of sinners. You said God has mercy on those who call for divine help. What in the world does your resurrection mean, then? What good is any of this if you have been shown to be nothing more than a weak failure who others can beat up? Where is our hero? And what in the world does it mean if you drag your wounds into what is supposed to be the new world that comes out of your empty tomb?”
You see, these are the perfect questions for Low Sunday! These are the critical issues for Easter people like us facing the fallout from a violent and world-shattering pandemic. Thomas’s questions ought to be our own. They are the questions of a world that might just find our Easter hymns rather hollow and naïve right now.
In the end, Jesus does convince Thomas to move from his questions to belief. The crucial issue—and the heart of this sermon—is to find out how Jesus does that. How does Jesus move someone from doubt to faith? Everything hinges on this!
Jesus’ response to Thomas is really quite amazing! He says, Thomas, put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out you hand and shove it in my side. In other words, Jesus invites Thomas to experience the very thing that Thomas needs in order to believe! He doesn’t say, “Shame on you, Thomas! Everyone else believes. What’s wrong with you?” No, Jesus invites Thomas to go back to the wounds of the cross and focus on them.
This really turns Easter inside out. You see, most often we want Easter to be a before-and-after. We count on it being God’s promise that things are going to get better and be better. We know we experience pain and doubt and heartache, and we want it to be over. Who can blame us? But Jesus wants Thomas—and us!—to understand that Good Friday and Easter morning are not a before-and-after. The cross and open tomb of Jesus are really two sides of a single reality—“the salvation of our souls.” The cross and open tomb cannot be separated from each other. That is why Jesus brings his wounds into Eastertide—because he cannot and will not be separated from them.
If Easter and Good Friday are but one single event welded together, then all these things must be true: Then God’s commitment to us is total. There aren’t pretty pictures and happy scenes where someday we will find God, and dark scenes of suffering here in the present where God is absent. Yes, God is present in resurrection victories of life-over-death, but God is also present in those places where death appears to be winning the game. We won’t find God at the end of our pandemic; God is here in the middle of it.
My freshman year in college I sang an amazing choral composition by the British composer Gustav Holst. It’s called “The Hymn of Jesus.” It is a musical setting of an ancient gnostic text, and in one place, Jesus says this: Learn how to suffer and you shall overcome! Behold, I am couch. Rest on me. Could Jesus be the place where we can learn to rest in the midst of this pandemic, knowing that he is never distant from human suffering? This could be the salvation of our souls! Could we rest in Jesus even if that couch might become for us a bed in ICU? Jesus will be there! Even if that bed becomes the place in our home where the one we love is missing, Jesus will be there. That is his pledge to us, and it can save us. Because Jesus’ wounds and Jesus’ cross come with him into Eastertide, then we can be assured that nothing in all creation will ever separate us from his love. He is our couch. We rest on him, and we know our rest is secure. That is the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls—and it comes to us in the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Easter Day (Cycle A)
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ACTS 10:34-43
34Peter began to speak to [the people]: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
SECOND READING - COLOSSIANS 3:1-4
1If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
GOSPEL - JOHN 20:1-18
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
"Mind the Gap"
When she comes to the tomb that Easter morning, Mary Magdalene is not looking for Jesus. She doesn’t have to look. She knows exactly where to find him. Dead is dead, and one thing dead people do not do is wander around.
Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb so that she might grieve. While the other evangelists tell us that the women come that Sunday morning to anoint the corpse with spices, John has Mary coming empty-handed. She carries no supplies with her. She has no specific task to perform. She comes here alone, with her grief. And only in this way does she come on a search—as if she were looking for something. What had happened? Why had they all been so mistaken in following the man from Nazareth? Where had they all gone wrong? She was not looking for Jesus but only for the answers to her questions.
Those are Mary’s intentions as she makes her way into the garden that chilly April morning. She is not looking for Jesus but rather for something else—some ill-defined hope that there may be comfort for her pain, something that might fill the empty hollow of the grief that has carved out this pit in her insides.
So Easter starts with a gaping hole—at first within her. But as she rounds the corner and makes her way past the last bush, the tomb really stands as a gaping hole—a scar in the rock, an emptiness, a shocking, abhorrent vacuum. What now? Not this! Grief upon grief! Wasn’t it enough that they crucified him? Wasn’t it enough that the whole world hated him? Wasn’t it enough that they spit on him, tortured him, beat the life out of him, nailing him to a piece of wood? What more could they want? Even his dead body, his corpse—as if, somehow, death itself would not be enough for them!
And now—she really was looking for Jesus.
And this is where Easter begins—not with fancy music or beautiful flowers or alleluias supported by trumpets. No, Easter begins with emptiness, this abyss into which Mary Magdalene gets thrown. Just when we think it has gotten as bad as it can get, it gets worse. And this is where good news begins!
This is a strange Easter, I know. How do we celebrate resurrection life in the middle of a pandemic? There are so many things missing! We cannot sit next to each other, or share Communion, or exchange the peace of the Lord. We are trapped in our little Brady Bunch video boxes the same way we are trapped in our homes. I want to suggest to you, however, that our unusual circumstances give us opportunity to experience Easter in an especially authentic way this year—unlike any Easter we have ever experienced before. We need to sit outside Jesus tomb and see—really see—what is missing. There is a gaping hole! It is an empty tomb. Pay attention to that!
If you have ever been to London and ridden the subway, you may have noticed the sign posted over every subway car door. It says, “Mind the gap!” We Americans would say, “Watch your step,” but as usual, the British have a more accurate way to use the English language! Mind the gap! Pay attention! You may think something is there but it isn’t—and that is terribly important! Your well-being, maybe even your life, depend on you paying attention to what is missing.
Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb thinking she will know where Jesus will be found. He is not there. She runs to get two disciples, and they discover that all there is to be seen is some flimsy pieces of cloth that once served as his burial shroud—one piece for his face and another for his body—only cloth, but no Jesus. Mary sees two angels, seated like bookends on the slab where his body should have been—one at the place where his head should have been, and one to mark his missing feet. Where is Jesus? Not here! All we have to look at is this negative space in between where he should have been but where he is missing. Mind the gap!
Are you looking for Jesus? Where should you begin? Not in the places where you expect to see him. Start with the emptiness instead. Begin with the negative spaces. Look into the gaping crevices waiting to be filled, the hollowed-out caverns of grief, the vacuum of your disappointments where once your wish dreams glowed. Are you looking for Jesus? Don’t focus first on what you expect: trumpets or flowers, the beauty of the liturgy, the majestic cadence of ancient prayers. Savor the empty darkness, the landscape of your disappointments, the wounds and scars life has given you. Do not run from your grief. Look at what is happening to us. Pay attention to the distance between you and your neighbor as you practice social distancing. Could Jesus be there? Mind the gap!
Mary comes expecting to know where Jesus is to be found, but only to discover this scandalous emptiness—a violated grave and a missing corpse. And even though she has a vision of angels and pours out her heart to them, and even though she looks straight at the Risen Lord, still she does not see him! She thinks he is the gardener!
Are you looking for Jesus? You might be staring at him and not know what you are seeing! If you have come to worship every week, you might think you know where Jesus is to be found—in familiar hymns that you imagine make Easter “Easter”, or in the safety of a memorized liturgy, the familiarity of prayers you have heard for a lifetime. What draws you here today? Habit? Or sense of duty? Is it loyalty to a struggling institution? All those are wonderful qualities that bring together good and dedicated people. But Jesus may be somewhere else.
Are you looking for Jesus? If you find yourself here only because it’s Easter, there is a surprise waiting for you—Jesus will be here again next Sunday. You may discover that the Risen Lord always meets us with a surprise. Let me give you just one hint of the surprise that awaits you if you come back one week from today: Jesus will be here again, but he will come among us with the greatest shock of all. He will come here to show us his crucifixion wounds—his hands, his feet, his side. What are those wounds doing in Eastertide? Why should the Risen Lord be wounded? What in the world does Easter mean if Jesus carries his wounds, or wears a face mask, into his new age? What would that mean? And could our wounds be part of his Easter life? Well, stay tuned for further developments on that one!
Are you looking for Jesus? Then be sure to listen to how Peter preaches a sermon at the home of Cornelius. (This was today’s First Reading.) Cornelius is an outsider to the story of Jesus. He’s a Roman and not a Jew. He’s a centurion, just like the army officer who watched to make sure Jesus was crucified. Peter considers Cornelius outside God’s grace. And Peter preaches this sermon in utter astonishment because Cornelius has been keeping Peter awake at night—well, not really Cornelius himself but dreams about Cornelius that God keeps sending to Peter. In these troubling dreams God keeps taking all the things that Peter thinks are unclean and God keeps saying, “What I have made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter is about to be swept up by a revolutionary breakthrough in his thought—that the story of Jesus is not exclusively the property of insiders. It is especially meant for outsiders.
If you think that church is for good people—well, it’s not. If you think that the church is only here to make distinctions between right and wrong, or between the right kind of people and the wrong ones, there’s a great surprise waiting! The problem, you see, is that all too often, in spite of what Christians say they believe, the church gets this one dead wrong! If you happen to be one of those unfortunate people who got told by pious Christians “You’re going to hell!” there’s good news. God’s been looking for you to tell you that those who judged you got it all wrong. And if you have been one of the people doing the judging, maybe this is the season for a resurrection and a transformation.
If we have come together week after week thinking Jesus will be inside a building, maybe we were wrong. Perhaps Jesus is waiting for us out in the world—waiting to greet you in the face of the stranger.
Mind the gap!
The Risen Christ is here today making good on a promise. The promise is so great it will take fifty days—all of Eastertide—to unpack it, and really, after that, a whole lifetime and more to figure out what’s going on. But already the first hint of that revelation is given in the words of today’s Second Reading:
...if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Are you looking for Jesus? He is much closer than you imagine—as close as the gardener! Look around you this week and see his body. A part of him may stare at you out of your television. And he looks out and greets others through your eyes. The Lord is Risen indeed! Mind the gap! That is where you will discover the Risen Christ! In his name.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke