Deacon Sue Nebel

It has probably happened to you. A tune, an image, a phrase or statement lodges itself in your mind and you can’t get rid of it.  There it sits, persistently repeating itself.  No effort on your part to brush it aside or ignore it works. It just will not let go.  I had that experience this week with this morning’s readings.  As I started to read and reflect on the Scripture passages for today, one sentence caught my attention.  The opening line of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” My first response, when I read it, was: ‘Oh, that sounds familiar.’  I remembered a book I read many years ago. Its title is a variation on the sentence from Hebrews: A Hope in the Unseen.  It is the story of a black teenager living in one of the poorest areas of Washington, D.C. with dreams of a better future. With perseverance and hard work, he graduates from high school, gets a scholarship, and goes to college. The book tells the story of his struggles as a young Black man in a dominant White culture to achieve his goal.

Once I made that connection and figured out why the line from Hebrews stood out for me, I expected that the sentence would fade away and I would be done with it.  But that didn’t happen. Instead, those words “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen” took up residence in my mind and kept nagging, “Pay attention to this.”  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.” It is a statement rich in meaning.  Faith and hope are an essential part of our Christian faith. They are part of our tradition, going all the way back to Scripture. The first two readings this morning give us part of the story of Abraham. In the Genesis reading, Abraham worries that he will have no offspring. God promises that he will have an heir and that his descendants will be more than he can count, like the stars in the sky.  In the Hebrews passage, we hear about another promise, a promise of land. Abraham sets out for this unknown place, not knowing where he is going but trusting in God, journeying in faith.  God promises Abraham that he would have descendants, but he does not get to see them. He can only hope that it will happen.  And it does, generations and generations of descendants.

Hope.  It has been a challenge to have hope in this past week.  Last Sunday we were reeling from the news of gun violence in El Paso and Dayton. 31 people killed.  Many more wounded.  Cities and families torn apart by acts of violence.  How many times can our hearts break?  The shootings in El Paso were striking in several ways.  The shooter published a manifesto, using phrases that have, sadly, been heard frequently in our recent national conversation.  The city of El Paso is situated on the Mexican border.  A border that is open, fluid.  Mexicans and Americans move freely across the border to shop, to dine in restaurants. Mexican children cross the border every day to attend school in El Paso.  Friendships between El Paso and its sister city Juarez, both the cities themselves and their residents, flourish. A stark contrast to the images of the border—barriers, military patrols, drug trade—that we hear so much about.  El Paso, a flourishing, welcoming city. Now, in the wake of the shootings, fear and uncertainty.

As we moved through the week, we heard stories about those who died. We had some glimmers of hope that political leaders might be ready to move forward with gun control legislation. Then another stunning event: the ICE raids in Mississippi. 680 people arrested. The images of crying children who had finished their first day of school, only to learn that one or both parents had been taken into custody.  Our hearts break once again.  By evening, many of those arrested had been released because they had no criminal records.  Most children were reunited with at least one parent, but the damage had been done.  Such trauma is not easily forgotten.  Who knows if they will ever feel safe again?  In all of these events of the past week, we are once again confronted with the harsh reality of the deep divisions in our country over issues of race, immigration, and gun control. 

So here we are. What do we do in the face of such events? How can we find hope in the midst of so much tragedy, such negativity in our national life?  What can we hold onto? What promise are we given?  The answer is right there in the Gospel lesson.  Jesus tells his followers:

 “. . .it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  The Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about so much.  The vision of a world that God wants for us and for all God’s children.  A world where everyone is valued and treated fairly. A world where everyone can thrive.  Jesus believed that the Kingdom was coming soon.  No wonder then that he tells his followers to sell all they have, to be alert and ready.  But things did not go the way Jesus predicted.  The Kingdom did not come quickly.  2000-plus years later, it still isn’t here.  The early followers of Jesus realized that the Kingdom was not something to wait for.  Instead, it was something to hope for, to work toward.  Like Abraham, they might not see the fulfillment of God’s promise in their lifetime.  But, trusting in God and grounded in faith, they set to work.  To help the promise of the Kingdom be fulfilled.

What are we to do?  We do what Abraham did.  We do what those early followers of Jesus—and generations of followers up to our own time—did.  We move forward in faith, believing in the Kingdom, even though we may not get to see it.  We work together to make it a reality.  When we make our baptismal promises, we sign on to be Kingdom builders.  Each time we recite the words of the Baptismal Covenant together, we renew those commitments.  To love our neighbor.  To respect the dignity of every human being. To strive for justice and peace.  That is what working to  achieve the Kingdom looks like.

What are we to do? In the larger picture, the national scene, we can take action.  We can participate in demonstrations.  We can sign statements of positions on issues being debated in the public arena. We can make phone calls or write letters to legislators.  And we can vote. In the smaller picture, in our own sphere of influence and activity, we keep the promises we have made. We can love our neighbor, maybe moving out of our comfort zone.  We can broaden our understanding of neighbor to be as far reaching and inclusive as possible.  We can treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity and respect.  We can offer gestures of kindness, every chance we get. Each positive thing we do helps to build the Kingdom.  Each time we treat someone badly or deny their worth as a child of God, we diminish the effort to fulfill the promise. Everything we do matters.  Every single thing.

What are we to do?  We move forward, collectively and individually, in our journey of faith.  We do not know where the journey will take us, what challenges we will face.  But we always remember that it is a journey of faith.  Faith the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.

Proper 14: Year c

Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40       


The Rev. Andrew Suitter

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, my rock and my Redeemer.

To whom do you pray?

In divinity school, I had a professor who reiterated the importance of stating just who it was we were praying to. They did not believe that one should assume a prayer is directed to God unless God—or a name of God—was clearly stated. Names like Rose of Sharon, Father, Mother, Mighty Counselor, Abba, Alpha & Omega, or Love. My professor thought if we wanted to pray to God—it needed to be obvious.

On the other hand, it is hard to be obtuse about praying to Jesus—unless you prefer to call him Savior or Lord—and its even more difficult to be vague about the Holy Spirit.

Even in our beloved Book of Common Prayer—most prayers are written to God, and are sealed either in the name of Jesus, or with an invocation of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—rarely do we see a prayer specifically directed to Jesus.

So, I am curious, to whom do you pray?      By a show of hands—

Who prays to God?
Who prays to Jesus?
Who prays to the Holy Spirit?

Christians have for centuries prayed to God in the name of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. In my mind, while each of these are different parts of the same God, I understand their roles in the life of Christians to be quite different. Often, my more formal prayers are directed to God—my crisis prayers are often to Jesus—and the “oh no” prayers are often calling on the Holy Spirit…with desperate immediacy...

I know all of us have those “oh---no” prayers. It counts! I promise.

Scripture shows us time and time again how Jesus is part of God’s story, and how the Holy Spirit is the one who comes after Jesus to be a real presence of God among us—and our lessons get to the heart of this today. But first, what is Pentecost?

Pentecost, meaning 50, began during the time of the Jewish feast of Shavuot. Shavuot is a 1-3 day festival culminating in a pilgrimage to Siani, where Moses received the 10 Commandments. It is a time for the faithful to again, receive the Ten Commandments, and live more faithfully. This is just as we do today in reciting our baptismal covenant as we will do today in our baptisms. Shavuot comes seven weeks or 50 days after Passover, which is in line with Pentecost coming 50 days, or seven weeks, after Easter.

Now, in today’s passage from Acts, we see a great number of people assembled—gathered in Jerusalem near Sinai to again receive the Ten Commandments.

This would be for us, like Times Square—New York City—New Year’s Eve. There is chatter everywhere, the smells of foods from around the world, languages being spoken at top volume, and skin colors of all shades.  And then--the ball begins to drop…and at midnight Dick Clark’s voice—which I think is now Ryan Seacrest’s--becomes the voice that everyone hears—and understands! That is at least how I imagined this Pentecost story to unfold—that Ryan Seacrest’s voice becomes the voice that everyone understands in their own way. Can you imagine it? It is likely that all those gathered there spoke Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic, Egyptian, Elamite, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Median, Persian and possibly even more languages—and the hearts of all those gathered—were changed after being able to understand one another.   

We see in this passage a time when God’s Spirit called us to inclusion—and the magnificent thing about this story of inclusion is that no one—not a single person—had to give up their own identity to be changed by or experience this move of the Spirit of God.

God moved in a way that was familiar to them, and enabled them to see clearly how God united them rather than divided them. It was a story of God’s Spirit transcending any and all of our identities, and making us a new community—a community whose walls have been broken down by an experience of God so rich—that we have no choice but to be changed by it and to live differently thereafter.

This experience of God called each of them to speak on God’s behalf—and to tell the stories of God so that others might hear. God gave them dreams about the future life they wanted and visions for their children and their children’s children. This experience tuned them into the movement of God’s Spirit so that when Spirit moves—they might recognize it and again be both renewed and changed by it.

The Spirit of God moves in new ways all the time. God moves in and through us—through the things we see—the things we say—the ways in which we love others and ourselves—the ways in which we serve and care for the world.

The spirit of God moves in and through us in ways that move us closer to God, closer to God’s people, and it brings us closer to the brokenness of this world that sometimes makes us very uncomfortable—and this is part of this calling we share. Life isn’t always pretty.

This is the part of God at work in us, changing us, to better love and serve this world. This is allowing God to be the center of our dreams, so that our prophetic voice brings light to the pains and injustices of the world. This was Joel’s vision recalled in Acts—that we partner with God to spread God’s light—God’s love to this world that is beautifully broken and jagged. Joel imagined a world where we were prophets to the dead bones that this world has long abandoned and that we speak life to them, telling them to rise up and take their place as God’s beloved. 

Over twenty years ago, my friend the Rev. Becca Stevens began a program called Magdalene House. Magdalene communities seek to offer women a free, two year residential program where they can piece their life back together after being homeless, trafficked, and often incarcerated. A few days ago, I came across a post of hers on Facebook. What she said startled me. She says this:

“[I] Can’t take beds for granted. For many survivors who are brave enough to leave the streets and somehow find their way out of a morose prison system, they need a bed.  They need a bed they haven’t been assaulted in. They need a bed they don’t need to turn a trick to sleep in. They need a beautiful and safe and free bed.  Thistle Farms Nashville just had to buy 14 new beds for new women gracing our threshold.  I went to Sprintz Furniture and asked the salesperson if she could help me. She gave us all the beds at cost.  It was an amazing gift.  I am so thankful for my bed and thankful for all the compassionate salespeople who forgo commissions for compassion.”


This is the Pentecost I know. That our personal and communal convictions—lead us to thin spaces where we meet the Holy Spirit doing holy work all around us—softening hearts to give, opening arms to take in. Where people are so moved as to offer safe spaces for hurting people to recover and heal for free. Such a gift surpasses language, it radiates love, and it changes us when we bear witness to the Holy Spirit at work in her people’s hearts, minds, and bodies.

Opportunities for Pentecosts happen all the time, my beloveds. And not only for people in immediate crisis or need, either. Our own community of St. Augustine’s is in a time of transition, too. We are doing some strong work around figuring out who we are, and how we are uniquely gifted to love this world together, and how we want to continue doing this into our future. Our search committee is doing incredible work to articulate who we are, how we work, serve, grow together, and how we love one another and the world, so that whomever joins us as Rector for this next season of our life, they are able to clearly see and hear the language we speak—the heart of our very soul—and will understand us—and be ready to change further with us.   

This work is the continuation of our community. It is the retelling of what the Spirit has already done in and through us—and it helps us figure out what the Spirit of God—the Holy Spirit—might be calling us into next. This side of the Holy Spirit helps us to see how God moves among us and through us to build a better and stronger community where people know they are loved, and where people know they are free.


Now on the other hand, the gospel lesson today highlights another side of the Holy Spirit, a side that might be harder to talk about.

Today, we see the first mention of the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel. We come to Philip, who pleads with Jesus to show him God. Jesus, who has been preaching the same message for quite some time says, essentially, “for as long as I have been with you—you still have not seen God? Have you seen me? Have you not seen the work we have done, have you not seen the miracles I have done?”  How can you say, “Show us the father,” when you have been seeing God the whole time?”

Jesus is confronting Philip with the aloof tone of his question---Phillip—why are you asking this unless you have not been paying attention? Can’t you tell that God is in me, and that I am in God? Even if you cannot believe that God is in me, and that I am in God—can’t you see God in the works you have witnessed?

Can you not see God at work in the things you have done as well? Look! I am sending you the Holy Spirit—someone who will be with you when I cannot be with you—who will lead you into the same kind of work we have done together—in fact—even greater works than we have seen together. I will send you someone you can turn to for help, for guidance, for protection—and this Advocate—this spirit—it comes from God. If you love me…you will continue this work…and my Spirit will guide you. I leave you in peace, and I leave you in a love that the world does not know. I am always with you.”

This spirit, is the very presence of God, and if you wonder what it looks like, look at the ministry of Jesus. Talk with a woman who no longer has to sell herself just to be safe, secure and housed. Talk with someone who saw death flash before their eyes and lives to tell us about it. Talk with someone who has understood grace in such a way that it brings them to tears to recall God’s faithfulness.

If you want to know how the Holy Spirit relates to you, think back to a time when you were not sure you had the strength to get through a trial and the only sense of calm and peace you knew was this gentle hand guiding you. Or, think back to a time when you had no choice but to loosen the grasp you have on this life because for the first time you might have realized you were powerless without the presence of God in your life.

John tells us about the side of the Holy Spirit that shepherds us as the ultimate comforter—our chief advocate and companion—and healer. Acts tells us about the impact that bearing witness to the spirit has in our lives—and reminds us that this move of the spirit is bound to happen wherever we look—and it commissions us to go and to share this love of God that we have come to know. 

The disciples were afraid of what was to come. They had a hard time imagining a world different than what they already knew. The teacher they had come to love was leaving, and the future seemed bleak.

But they were not left empty-handed, and neither are we.

Everyday, we bear witness to the Holy Spirit reminding us of who our God is. We feel moved to step into a gap and meet a need for someone. We have a growing sense that someone we love might need a call or a text and we do it to find out they are in a bad way. We wake up in time after a failed alarm to witness something beautiful; something beautiful in our day that inspires us and changes us.

We witness the nearness of God in the tears that fall down our cheeks.
We remember God’s faithfulness when we hear the joy of another’s burden being lifted.
We get out of our heads long enough to remember that God really does love us and equips us to be centers of love and compassion for this world in which he died.
We encounter something in God’s beauty that might well have been in a cathedral and we are mesmerized, and once again captivated.

Each of us are like Philip. We want to see more to believe. We want to know that everything we are supposed to do, is clearly marked and we are prompted when to move, when to love, when to be guided.

The Spirit, God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is alive in each of us. The Holy Spirit knows us, flaws and all, and still moves in and through us as we seek to be Christ bearers in this world. And it is easy to forget that God is closest to us in the form of our neighbors—another person the bearer of a soul made in the image of God instilled with this very same Holy Spirit—even those we find it a challenge to like, let alone love. The Spirit consoles us and wraps us up when we feel most vulnerable. The Spirit prompts us and lets us know when we are needed to step out in faith and serve and love this world.

God created us, Christ redeems us, and the Spirit marks us as God’s own forever. We are sustained in God’s good love, challenged by it, and called to share it—wholly depending upon the Holy Spirit. It is both our gift and burden to serve this world and love it in the ways that we can—and it is God’s gift to us that we make communities, just as we are doing today with Avery and Tessa--communities built upon such a love that knows no single identity—no single language—where we can marvel at God among us.

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

EASTER 6C, SUNDAY, MAY 26, 2019 - The Rev. Andrew Suitter

If You Love Me, Then You’ll Do As I Say…

Love Love Love. As of late, it seems like love is all the rage in the gospel lessons.

Love one another as I have loved you.
The greatest commandment is to love one another.
The world will know that you are Christian by your love for one another.
Love one another.

Last week, we spoke about Jesus calling us to the very center of our faith. He told us that at the end of the day, at the very center of our faith, and of Christian living, is the idea that none of this matters if first we first do not love one another.

We spoke about how Peter defended his actions after a dream caused his heart to grow in love for God’s people and the world. And from this, we spoke about how our dreams and visions can help us bring our life into focus—and if you can remember your dreams—perhaps they help us unpack and explore some nuance in our life or lead us down paths of loving God’s people more generously, and with more intention.

This week, we find the disciples with Jesus and their anxiety is at a full level 10. They know their best friend, their leader, is leaving them. There is a teaching about the Trinity—about how the Spirit will come and be present with them—when Jesus is no longer with them—and inspires them with such words as—if you love me then you will do what I say.

I remember my grandparents using tactics like this. “Andy, do you love Grammie?” she would ask. “Of course I do, Grammie. Why?” “Well, if you love Grammie, you will help her with the dishes today.” Or it could be any other task that she needed help to complete. It was annoying to me when she would say that because I knew that she raised my mother, and my mother always said you cannot,…… should not, manipulate people with love. Afterall, the Apostle Paul says that “Love is patient and kind and does not demand its own way—,”and so just as I am surprised by my grandmother using these words when I was younger—I too am surprised by Jesus’s words today. “If you love me, then you will do as I tell you to do.”

Part of me wonders if this is another common parenting tactic—parents help me out—be honest. Is the request as it is so that in doing what we have been asked to do--we are ultimately spending time with someone we love? Is agreeing to do what we have been asked to do out of love for someone really more of a testimony to a loving relationship than a manipulation of feelings? It doesn’t seem far fetched in my mind that someone we love could actually want to spend time with us. It does not seem far fetched to me that someone we love would want us to be intentional about our choosing to spend time with them, too.

In our gospel lesson today, we see the realistic confusion of a changing relationship. John goes on to talk about God and the faces of God that we see and celebrate as God the creator, Jesus the redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the sanctifier.  John is quick to highlight the relationship among the triune God and that to these friends of Jesus, who are in fear of and mourning the departure of their friend—Jesus is reassuring them of his ongoing presence—but in another form.

In the words of Golden Girl Sophia Petrillo: Picture it: The Ancient East, year 1. The disciples are gathered once again, and they are not only hearing about this new way that they will relate to their friend, but the reality that he is going away is at its heaviest. I see their sunken shoulders and sad faces, as much as I can see their vulnerability completely exposed. Jesus says, “A friend will come to you. That friend will walk beside you, above you and within you. That friend, the Holy Spirit, will defend you and remind you of all that I, Jesus, have taught you.”

 One of the things that I am most sure of in this life, is that God works through the canon of American music to minister to my soul. Sacred music, for me, is not the only canon worth singing and including in our worship. I think the fingerprint of the Holy Spirit is on so much in the world and when we can celebrate it, its even better.

The song that has been in my heart all week after reading and wrestling with these passages is Carol King’s 1971 hit, You’ve Got a Friend. She writes:

When you're down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon i will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night

If the sky above you
Grows dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind begins to blow
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud
Soon you'll hear me knocking at your door

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I'll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I'll be there
You've got a friend

Now tell me there is not a lot of Jesus in that song. Friendship with our God implies that we will communicate with our God—when the sky above is dark—when we are down and troubled—when we are joy-filled and exuberant. Such communication implies that we have a desired connection to the Holy Spirit who leads us time and time again to God’s peace, to the kind of peace that comes not from the world but from Love himself that sustains us—and grounds us.

 This week, our passage in Acts invites us to engage yet another vision-this time its Paul’s vision. Paul was, as usual, on a mission to share the Good News of Jesus and was traveling throughout Asia Minor and Europe. He was compelled to go to Macedonia but instead he ended up in Phillipi—talking with a woman called Lydia.

Now, Lydia was a very successful businesswoman from Thyatira living in Philippi. She was an independent woman—she sold purple cloth, ran a household, and worshipped God faithfully. Paul wasted no time in preaching the gospel of Christ to Lydia and the women of her household and it is reported that they all accepted this Good News and availed themselves for Baptism.

From the get-go, Lydia operates from an open heart. She took a risk being willing to host this group of gnarly men traveling the world and committed to doing what she could financially and materially to support the work of God that changed her life—ultimately becoming a pillar of the early church.

What we don’t hear in the rest of today’s lesson, is what goes on to happen for Paul. Next, Paul is sought after by an enslaved girl; he performs an exorcism which upsets a lot of people and gets hism in front of the magistrate. Paul and his friend Silas are beaten and put into prison—but prison even didn’t stop Paul from preaching. He converted the jailer—and the jailer and his newly converted family offer the men hospitality and medical care. When Paul and Silas left the jail, they immediately returned to Lydia’s house; but unfortunately, this is all we know of Lydia and her ministry.

When Jesus tells us, “If you love me, then you will do what I tell you to do,” it can be intimidating. It can be intimidating to think about the risks that can come with preaching the gospel, loving the world, and being faithful to what we know best. Paul and Lydia highlight that quandary and leave us with some soul searching. The work of ministry is difficult. It requires sacrifice, forethought, planning, vision casting, and taking chances. It requires us all to step up and discern. It is a call to deeper self-examination, to careful attention about how it is we spend our resources, our valuable time, and the hospitality we offer to this world.

The work of ministry bids us to do all these things and more—however we are not called to do this work in isolation. Community is at the very heart of the Christian identity from the early church on to today. Paul and Timothy traveled together. Lydia and her household of women were changed together. Jesus and the disciples made a life together.

Too often these days, our lives are dictated by the demands of our often-over-scheduled children; our hour plus commutes to the city; and busyness of all sorts. We have lives that require our everything and we are pulled in every direction. We are called to live in this world—however—we are also called to usher in the kingdom of God together. When one of us falls, another lifts us up. There is a working relationship here and it cannot be one sided.

We are not a Country Club. We are a community founded on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are a community of broken people trying to make it in this rat race and we excel, and we fail beautifully. The time we share every week is a blessing. It is a finite amount of time and it requires a lot of sacrifice to be here. It is the one time a week where we can gather, break bread, worship, learn, and further piece together the work that God has begun in our lives, and it is a place to come when the storms of this life are rough. It is a place to come when life is good, and we need to offer our thanks and praise.

It is a time to gather and figure out how we do this Good News thing, together. How are we further changed by it? How do we further engage it and share it with the world? How do we hold the love we have for God, for one another and this world in one hand—and our ministry and service in the other?

This week, I have had the joy of seeing our Sunday School rooms used throughout the week for hospitality and shelter through the Family Promise program. As I have walked the hallway to my office, I pray for the names on the welcome signs. I pray for the traumas that have allowed for their homelessness; the anxiety that comes from being on the receiving end of basic needs—and knowing that a permanent home is just around the corner; I pray for the churches hosting these families, that they offer compassion, dignified care, and safety; and I pray for all the new homes that they will soon be establishing and all the new memories they will be making together.

I am so pleased that our church is a safe place for these families to come. I am pleased that my office is used in this ministry—and I am grateful for the shake up this brings to the walls of this house—because it reminds me that we are all in this together. Many of you welcome the families with hot meals, offer to stay the night as a means of support, and give of your time to offer meaningful hospitality. By your participation, it feels like we all participate. You all provide the safe space, the hot food, the utilities, and the open door that enable us to offer this ministry. I am grateful and proud to be a member of this community—of this community of Lydias.

If today sparks anything in you, I hope that its Lydia. I hope that her open heart, her hospitality and her zeal for ministry sparks something in you. I hope that she is able to engage you in asking some essential questions about life in the season ahead.

What excites you about this beautiful world? How has God uniquely gifted you to care for this world? How can we support one another to do this work of loving the world?

If you love me, you will do what I have asked you to do.

I am so glad I spent that time with my grandmother—that she cared enough about me to make those memories—and that serving alongside her helped shape the ways in which I see the world, and in turn, love it.

You are the church, my beloveds. Love one another, serve one another, and care for one another. The world is hungry, and you have just what it needs. Amen.


A Vision of Love, based upon John 13:31-35 & Acts 11:1-18

While preparing for this sermon today, I was once again reminded of the very vague nature of the word “love” in the English language. For example, when thinking about the trajectory of this sermon—I decided to call it, “A Vision of Love.” However, as I sat there, I had this strange feeling that somehow, I knew this title from another medium. Before long, a melody came to mind, my fingers were tapping, and the lyrics and dancing soon followed. My millennial mind was taken back to another day and time when life was very different. The moment passed, and I pulled myself together and continued writing this sermon. But for all those music lovers out there curious about the song that came to my mind—it was Mariah Carey’s 1990 hit, “Vision of Love!”[1] Do you remember it? She sings.

Treated me kind. Sweet destiny. Carried me through desperation
To the one that was waiting for me…It took so long, and still I believe that somehow  
the one that I needed would find me eventually…I had a vision of love…

I don’t know about you, but this song takes me back to the roller rink; to the cafeteria dance floors of my youth, and I love it! However, as much as I enjoy this song, it is not where I want to stay for this sermon—but the title—that’s what I want to talk about today.

The Greeks have many words for all the different kinds of love that there are; and here are five:

1.      Eros is the passionate love that is brought together by Cupid—what Mariah was singing about.

2.      Storge is the loving connection among family members, and it highlights the sacrifices families often make for one another. It is a parent or grandparent working hard to provide food and shelter; it is the child who makes and offers meticulous pasta crafts for all occasions of gift giving; it is the first home that a child makes from college after the parents have driven away.

3.      Phileo is the emotional connection of close friendship—the friends who know you and love you regardless of your flaws—the friends you might spend Thanksgiving with to avoid the drama of some family.

4.      Philautia is the love one learns to have for themselves—and can be hard fought for a lifetime.

5.      Agape. Agape is the highest form of love and charity that one can offer the world. It is said that this is the kind of love with which God loves this world, with which God loves us, and it is the love we are called to offer back to God and to this world. It is an affectionate, caring, respectful, and consistent love.

Of all these loves, Agape is the kind of love found in our gospel passage today just on the heels of the last supper. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Imagine hearing this after you have just dined with someone you love for the last time and these are their parting words. Your mind is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; and while maybe you knew deep down that this end might come to pass, the reality that it is finally here is heavy. Seeing so, the disciples are afraid. They have not the headspace for Jesus’ stories that make us think, that can be quite broad, and yet so very poignant. Instead, in this moment, Jesus got right to the point; he looked at them and told them ever so simply, the way of Christian living.

Just as I have loved you…You ought to love one another.
By this, everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

Too often, Christians have messed up this portion of our faith. We have gotten lost in the weeds of arrogance and pride, just as we have academia, scholasticism, and orthodoxy; and we have lost people along the way. We have developed Creeds that while useful in our understanding the story of our faith and highlight some major tenants about it, they do not quite get to the mission of our faith and the work to carry out the mission.

All too often, Christians have gotten fussy about church. They participate in a faith community either through critique of it or those therein. Some believe that their interpretation and practice of the faith is what everyone else ought to aspire to; while others can become persnickety about the selection of hymns, flowers, a misspoken word, or what is preached from the pulpit all the while overlooking the log that is stuck in their own eye. In some Christian communities, it almost feels like a competition to where the best looking and best sounding are deemed masters of the faith. In some parts of the church, the fruits of greed have been labeled as blessing, and the faith of the poor is further hijacked because faithfulness is tied to  this “blessing.”

My beloveds—this is far away from the bottom line that Christ preaches in this gospel today. We aren’t called to live perfect lives according to a creed, or way of belief per se, we are called to love God, to love one another, and to love this world with the same love that we experience in our relationship with our Lord. We are called to be lovers of people, their unique gifts and personalities, and to celebrate God’s genius in their being.

None of this is new to the faith of Jesus. He healed on the sabbath, he broke bread with people he was not supposed to, and he defended the same faith when the misguided actions of faith leaders brought toxicity into the community. His faithfulness was not measured by being orthodox in his practice, but loving and inclusive of the world around him.

This my beloveds, is the way that the world will know we are Christian. It is not only by our practice of faith, and neither is it only by the words that we say about our faith; but rather is it in our loving actions and generous care for one another, and for all of God’s children, that the world will know we are Christian. Everything else—the music, the creeds, the programs—they mean absolutely nothing if first we cannot love one another. 

Beloveds, the reality is, right now, we do not live in a world where we can go without the hope, grace, and peace that love brings. Our world is hungry for love; and it is our gift, our bounden duty, to love all God’s people—which then—is a testament to our love for our God.

In our lesson from Acts today, we come across a story about the first expansions of our faith and the conflict that ensued as a result of a general lack of respect and understanding for another. Surely this is nothing that we see today in communities where people live and work and worship, right?!

Here, Peter has met Gentiles who have taken the message of Christ, which at this point in time followers of Christ were mostly Jewish and were often considered adherents of a branch of Judaism. The conflict in this story is that those who were already part of the faith, were concerned that their leader was breaking bread with people who didn’t practice the same cultural values as the majority of those in the faith—and what might that mean for them? What might it mean when people who live differently than we do, begin to change us?

This conflict escalated and Peter had to defend his actions. In doing so, he tells us about a vision he had—a vision that explains why he was breaking bread with people outside the faith. Among the Gentile people, Peter says that while he was praying he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven. On this sheet were animals—beasts and birds alike—and suddenly there was a voice. This voice was God telling Peter to kill and eat whatever it was he wanted to from all those animals on the sheet. But, Peter refused touting the fact that he is a clean man, and will not eat anything that could defile him in any way. However, the voice came back, and tells Peter that what God has made clean, can make no one profane.

What Peter came to experience, through his love for the Gentile people and his attempts to understand their different ways, was a change of heart. His heart grew, and it grew to include people who lived differently than he did. In fact, the love and care that he offered the Gentiles served as the catalysts of faith in their lives.

Peter had a Vision of Love, and it changed the way in which he went into the world, loved the world, and shared his faith. It is this vision of love for one another that Christ tells us is the greatest commandment of our faith. The prayer of St. Francis, a favorite of many, reminds us of this kind of love, too. Francis prays:

 Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

The historic faith invites us to love the world with abandon, and our visions and dreams can lead us in this way just as they did Peter.

What are the Visions of Love in your life? What are your dreams speaking to you in this season of life?

As a young gay man, I remember wrestling with God as I really believed I had to chose the faith of my heart or the fullness of my humanity. Christian and Gay did not reconcile. Over this period of several years, my dreams were of a place and time where I could live unburdened by shame and guilt and live into faith as an openly gay man. In some of these visions and dreams, I served as a pastor, and in others, I had a family of my own. Perhaps what was so confusing was that the voice of God in the dreams was far more loving and kind than the voice of God I had come to learn about earlier in my youth.

This period of years was spent trying to understand perhaps why I was gay; who it was that I could blame for these feelings, and I spent so much time trying to figure out this portion of my identity and reversing whatever it was that happened to get me to this point. Shame and guilt were the driving forces of my life, and on the inside I was wrecked.

It wasn’t until one hot summer day when an Episcopal priest I met took me to coffee and asked to hear what was in my heart. I shared my story. I shared about the dreams and the visions I had been having for the last several years, and what she said in response to them is something I will never forget. “Andrew,” she said, “the sin of homosexuality is not at all the homosexual; it is the way the church has treated the homosexual.” It was in that moment that the voice of the God in my dreams and visions, seemed for the first time a reality—and it was coming through this priest who knew the wounds I was nursing. I knew by her love for me, and for all the gay, lesbian and trans people in our community—that I was finally home—and that at last—my pain lifted. My heart opened up and grew to have a compassion for the world I did not know prior to that point. This came as a result of someone loving me enough to be a healing balm and raise me from the pits. This was the Christian faith I had always longed for; and it is what we are called to in these lessons today.

What are the visions and dreams of your hearts?
What burdens are weighing down your shoulders and are telling you that you are not enough?
What gift of love are you holding on to that God is patiently nudging you to offer this world?
     Is it the gift of companionship to the dying? Is it the gift of foster care?
     Is it the gift of compassion for people experiencing wounds you know all too well?
     Is it the gift of feeding hungry bellies and curious souls?

Perhaps the vision of love inside your heart is to be a better steward of the relationships you have with those closest to you; to show them love in more tangible ways. Perhaps the vision of love inside your heart is to practice the art of thinking before you speak; to stand up when you might normally shrink back; to lavish love when you might want to conserve it. We all have visions of love---and it is through loving this world—the greatest commandment of our Lord—that we live into them and are ourselves changed by them.

I love you. God loves you. And may we love one another in the same way. Amen.



Sam Love

Let us pray:

“Most gracious and gentle God, from the womb of your love your gave birth to all creation; and in your Son Jesus Christ you reveal a loving kindness that longs to gather up your children under the shadow of your wings.

Bless, we pray, all mothers, especially those who nurse and care for your children.

Give them patience and wisdom. Sustain them in gentleness and grace. Deepen the tenderness of their affections. Affirm them in the nobility of their calling.

May our children always find in the embrace of mothers an outward and visible sign of your never-failing love and care. And through the love of our mothers, may we all feel the warmth of your tender mercies and know the constancy of your unconditional love.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


Hallelujah, the Lord is risen!

Why then, do we find ourselves back at the temple?

We’ve been through the long work of soul-searching and casting off the works of darkness that is Lent. And we’ve trod the long and difficult path that leads from the garden to the upper room, to the glorious empty tomb. So, how is it that the lectionary organizers place us way back in the feast of Dedication, which is Hanukkah? Another miraculous appearance or even something from Season 2, I’d understand, but there seems to be a disconnect here. At least, those were my first thoughts as I looked at the readings for today.

Lent shows us where we’ve been, Easter shows us where we’re going. So, what’s with the prequel?

Then it came to me.

Traditionally, Mystagogia is a period in the church’s life, after Easter, for neophytes to be instructed in the mysteries of our faith. It is also a season of reflection for our more seasoned members. Rather than rush to get things back to “normal”, after all the Easter preparations and celebrations are over, it’s a time for us to look back and contemplate the meaning that Jesus’ resurrection has for our daily lives; To see what, as Pastor Suzi said last week, the “new normal” is, now that we have been reconciled to God.

To ensure that we’re truly on the right path—that we haven’t just put back on what was cast off during Lent—we are encouraged to (as we say) persevere in resisting evil, and when (not if) we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. So let’s look a little deeper into the good news we have before us this morning, to see what mystery or mysteries there are for us to contemplate.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus being challenged by a group of people (assumed to be Jewish leadership by most scholars) who seemingly could not or would not accept his identity. “Are you the Messiah? If so, tell us plainly, they insist—as if there was a microphone hidden somewhere, collecting all the evidence they would need to convict him. But Jesus turns the tables on them, figuratively this time. “I have told you plainly” he says, “and for those of you who believe actions speak louder than words, look at the works I’ve done; even they testify to who I am”.

So the problem, Jesus points out, isn’t that I haven’t “told you plainly”; the real issue here is that you’re unable or unwilling to accept what I’ve told you because you are not in right relationship with me. Jesus uses the metaphor of a shepherd and his flock to illustrate what a right relationship between God and the people of God looks like (Hint: It looks like living the 23rd Psalm). They don’t recognize the voice of this shepherd, because they’re not his flock.

We know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but are we part of His flock? Are we good sheep?

Sheep, in the today’s world, have traditionally gotten a bum rap. They’re seen as docile, not-too-bright creatures, without a lick of intestinal fortitude in them. On the other hand, spiritually speaking, they represent unity and peace. And their young ones (lambs) are the embodiment of purity and innocence.

Since Easter we have, through our Collect Prayers, been in a constant dialogue with our creator; beseeching the God who:

1.       Gave His only begotten son to deliver us from the power of our enemy, to grant us so to die daily to sin.

2.       Established a new covenant of reconciliation, so that we may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

3.       Made himself know (in Jesus), to open our eyes to see him.

4.       As the good shepherd, pursues the lost and lays down his life for his flock; enable us to hear his voice, know who calls us and follow where he leads.

We have been asking God to help us be good sheep; Jesus’ sheep.

Jesus’ sheep hear his voice and follow him.

"Two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the men remarked, "Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket," But the other man could not hear the sound. He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people.

The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.

He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watch intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the crowded city living.

He turned to his friend and said, "We hear what we listen for."

As good sheep, we learn to listen—even amid the noise and struggle of our daily walk—for the voice of our shepherd: who will lead, guide, direct, strengthen and protect us. And we follow him—from weddings and miracles, to betrayal and the cross, to resurrection and ascension—through our thoughts, words, deeds and our lives together as a community of faith. We follow him through the many wonderful ministries, here, that are our response to His call and that exemplify our belief in and commitment to our baptismal covenant.

Jesus knows his sheep, and his sheep know him who calls.

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me”, says Psalm 139. “You know my coming in and going out. Even before a word is on my tongue, you O Lord know it completely”. Jesus knows who we really are—that sometimes we wander and on occasion get altogether lost, either because we get distracted by other shepherds or because we choose to be driven rather than lead—and yet loves us (Hallelujah) anyway.

On the other hand, “knowing” Jesus’ voice (at first glance) seems to imply some kind of cursory recognition. In Spanish, however, there are a couple of words used to describe or define “to know”; Saber and Conocer. “Saber” is more at being aware of or knowing about someone or something. But “conocer” leans more in the direction of having deep personal knowledge or experience of someone or something. “Saber”, we know by heart. “Conocer”, we know in our heart of hearts. And I think this is where our thoughts are being lead; From a group of people surrounding Jesus in a temple a long time ago, to a group of people gathered around Jesus in a church today.

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus said to Peter “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” And today Jesus is saying to us, “Do you love me? Be my sheep”.

Let us pray,

God of the green pastures and still waters, we come before you in this hour longing for the peace, healing and wholeness that only your spirit of grace can give. Help us in this season of introspection, to find the holes in our logic; the empty places in our hearts, and the gaps between our beliefs and our behavior; that we may be filled with your Love, embrace your mysteries, and follow where you alone lead.



Have you ever gone to visit someone or something and got the feeling that this was the last time? Have you ever been in such a thin space with God or with someone else that tears were the only language you needed to know? Have you even been betrayed—or been the betrayer—hurting someone you love in a harmful way? Friends, this is the scope of Holy Week. It is the final entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is the final meal he shares with his disciples. It is the time when his feet are anointed and his body prepared for its burial while still living. It is the time when friends Judas and Peter betray him and not only does it get him killed—it is a denial of the greatest of loves.

On this Good Friday, we see Simon of Cyrene help Jesus carry this cross to the hill where he will die. We see Jesus spat upon, pushed down, criminalized, tortured, and killed all in the name of the state all because he believed in a way of living called Love. However, Holy Week, and in particularly, Good Friday, is not only about gloom. While Jesus is hanging on the cross, we are told about the two men on either side of him; and despite not knowing them or having any real relationship with them--he promises them paradise—forgiving them for the things they’ve done knowing their time is also coming to an end. What I find most compelling about Good Friday, is that despite all the trauma Jesus has been through, and despite all the betrayal he has endured, he continues to practice what he believes even under the biggest cloud of doubt. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried, as the whips tore into his skin and people watched with glee.  

Beloveds, Holy Week is a week long journey into the life of our Christ. We are joined with him in his doubts, in his pain, and we come into touch with our own doubts and step even closer to our own pains as we walk this narrative and sit with Christ in his agony. Good Friday confronts us with the pains and evils of this world that challenged Christ and the system that killed him—and it gives us glimpses into the systems of this world today that cast shadows over entire bodies of people and still crucify them.

However--Holy Week also brings us to a place where--our pains have opportunity to meet God’s compassion; our disappointments are met with God’s steadfast love; and our hopes have yet another opportunity to live again. Holy Week asks us to consider those areas in our life that need resurrection. It asks us to think about those parts of our life where Christ is still on the cross—where there is pain or agony—resentment or bitterness—and it asks us to think about what it might it look like to let some of this pain die with Christ—even just some of it—so that we might experience some new kind of resurrection with our Lord on Easter Sunday.

Holy Week is not necessarily a time to forgive offenses that have caused us great harm as forgiveness is an incredible journey that is not at all easy and can take a very long time. However—Holy Week is a time that invites us to consider where it is that all the pains we know and suffer, intersect with the God of Love who came into human form and lived as one of us—was rejected, betrayed, tortured, and left to die. Holy Week invites us to sit in those thin spaces and keep vigil—in the same way God keeps vigil with us in the storms of this life—in the same way we keep vigil with Christ in his death. Holy Week asks us to prepare our hearts to go deep into this work. It invites us to break bread—to wash one another’s feet—to anoint our bodies for burial with Christ—and to bear witness yet again to the pains of this world that killed our Christ—and continue to this day taking the lives of holy innocents. Good Friday reminds us that while Christ died—love never gives up. Love remembers the repentant and welcomes them home. Love remembers the doubtful and embraces them with conviction. Love faces every fear, and fights every battle, and remains the greatest of hopes and all virtues. Good Friday reminds us that Love never fails—that even from the grave—we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. This my beloveds, is what we gather to proclaim even in our darkest of hours—and it is this song that has called us together for these last two thousand years.

For many years, I wondered what, if anything about Good Friday was Good. I wondered why something so tragic, so criminal, as the death of Christ was in any way good. Did God really want this all to happen? Does God really forsake us in this way today? Christ, from the cross, even doubted. It is only natural that we too feel this—and we see this played out in the story of Peter—who apart from these three instances remained a person with strong faith and conviction. We also must consider Judas—who despite his selling Jesus out—suffered a very weak moment. We are no different.

The Good News of Good Friday, my beloveds, is that we are again invited into the mystery of God’s love. The pains we bear in this life—are met by God’s love. The doubts we have in this life—are met by God’s love. The pain and suffering we experience in this life are not some evil sent to us from a God who leaves us hanging. We are instead met with Love—in our darkest moments of this life—in our darkest moments on the crosses we bear. Perfect love calls us home. Perfect love walks with us in our pain. Perfect love bears our every pain. This is the Good News of Good Friday. Love’s finest display—the cross that bears the sins of the world. It is uncomfortable to watch what happened. It is uncomfortable to see anybody we love suffer…and like the disciples who stood to observe this awful pain…we are reminded that the invitation of God is to love us and never leave us or forsake us. Beloveds, we kneel in the presence of Christ at this cross today, bearing our full selves—both the disciple and the betrayer. In these days, we are invited to sit with Christ’s body and pray—just as Christ sits with us even in our darkest hour—and waits with us for resurrection. This is an opportunity to participate in the life, death, and resurrection of our Christ—and it is the hope of our faith. Good Friday is Good News. Friends, we are an Easter people—we know that from the ashes Love will rise again—we see it every day—even when we doubt—even when we can’t see it for ourselves. If you’re going through hell—hold on. Love is not yet done.


Deacon Sue Nebel

Alleluia. Christ is risen. (People respond: The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.) It has been a full week since we first made that joyful proclamation. A week since we heard the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. The first hint that something remarkable had happened. A week since the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. Recognized by Mary Magdalene in the garden near the tomb. In the days since then, in churches with weekday celebrations of the Eucharist, people have heard the stories of more post-Resurrection appearances. Jesus appears to some followers on their way from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. He also appears to the disciples. Gradually the light of hope grows in the darkness of despair. The realization that the political powers of oppression, the powers of darkness, have been defeated. God has done something remarkable. God has raised Jesus from the dead into new life. In this morning’s Gospel, we hear the story of the first appearance of Jesus to the disciples. A week later, he appears again. Thomas, who had not been present with the other disciples when they encountered Jesus, needs to be convinced of this new reality. Struggling to believe the impossible, Thomas wants to see the marks of the wounds on Jesus’s body. Responding to Jesus’s invitation to touch him, Thomas bursts out: “My Lord and my God.” Recognition and belief. 

This morning, we hear not only the story of Thomas’s affirmation of Jesus. We also get a glimpse of the impact of the Resurrection on the disciples. In the first reading from the Book of Acts, Peter and the disciples, now called apostles, have been brought before the authorities. Peter, who after the arrest of Jesus denied any connection to him, is now a voice of affirmation. With the others, he boldly affirms loyalty to God rather than any human authority. Emboldened and strengthened, Peter and the others are moving forward to continue the story of Jesus. They will spread the good news. They will tell the story of Jesus: his life and death, his deeds of healing and teaching. His message of a God that loves all of God’s children. Fully and completely, without regard to their status in society. A God that dreams of a world in which all are honored and respected, where all human life thrives.

Easter. Resurrection. Inside the walls of our churches, we celebrate and rejoice in new hope. Outside it is a very different story. This has been a difficult week. On a global level there were the bombings in Sri Lanka. As the day wore on, we learned the magnitude of the tragedy: 250+ people killed, many more injured. Christians targeted by religious extremists. Then yesterday, news of another shooting in a place of worship. This time a synagogue in San Diego. The target: Jews. Closer to home, the initials A.J. were etched on our hearts. We heard the news of a five year old missing in Crystal Lake. We waited anxiously, hoping for his safe return home. Then came the news we had been dreading: A.J. had been found. He was dead, murdered. The details of his short, difficult life emerged: abusive parents, drug usage, the failure of a system that is supposed to protect at risk children. Easter. Resurrection. Good news. How do we find good news in the face all of this? Where do we find hope?

Surrounded by all this bad news, I did what I often do. Like Native Americans and people in many cultures, I turned to the elders. My go-to sources for wisdom. I turned first to Steven Charleston. You may have heard his name. I have mentioned him before. Steven Charleston is the retired Bishop of Alaska and currently works with the Native American/Indigenous Peoples Ministries of the Episcopal Church. I subscribe to his posts on the Internet.  He said this about the bombings in Sri Lanka:

I will remember Sri Lanka. I am sure you will too. . .We have seen it before, but the bombing of places of worship still has the power to startle us because its cruelty is so calculating. It reminds us that our job as people of faith is far from over. In many ways, we have just begun. The task ahead is both dangerous and difficult, but we will not back down from the cause of peace between all people of all religions. We will never be bullied by religious terrorism. Why? Because we remember Sri Lanka.

Our job as people of faith is far from over. In many ways, we have just begun. That sounds like Thomas, ready to move forward into a new, unknown future. That sounds like Peter and the disciples. Refusing to back down. Ready to carry on the work that Jesus started. That sounds like Resurrection. 

After drawing from Steven Charleston’s wisdom, I turned to another of my go-to people: Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I discovered that he too had turned to an elder, a source of wisdom. For him it was Barbara Harris. Barbara Harris, an African American, was the first woman ordained and consecrated a bishop in The Episcopal Church. She has written a memoir titled Hallelujah, Anyhow! The title comes from an old Gospel hymn:

Hallelujah anyhow!
Never let your troubles get you down.
When your troubles come your way
Hold your hands up high and say
Hallelujah anyhow!

Michael Curry makes that phrase “Hallelujah anyhow!” the theme for his Easter message. He retells the story of Mary Magdalene. Standing at the foot of the Cross, faithful to the end. Hallelujah anyhow! Mary and the women going to the tomb in the early morning darkness. In the midst of grief and lost hope, going to perform a final act of love: preparing the body for burial. Hallelujah anyhow! Mary seeing Jesus in the garden, experiencing the impossible. Hallelujah anyhow!

As we moved through this past week, we began to hear more about Sri Lanka. Muslims opening their mosques to the Christian faith communities that had been attacked. Offering them space for their worship services. Hallelujah, anyhow! People bringing toys, stuffed animals, and messages of love to the memorial at A.J. Freund’s home. People gathering for a vigil, lighting candles in the darkness. An outpouring of generosity and love that A.J. did not experience in his short, sad life. Hallelujah anyhow! A community activist moving through the crowd. Handing out information sheets on how to report suspected abuse. She said: “I want this community to be a place where children are safe.” Hallelujah anyhow! 

Allelulia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. We begin our services throughout the Easter season, the Great Fifty Days of Easter, with those words. We end with an Easter Dismissal: Let us go forth in the name of the Risen Christ. Alleluia. Alleluia. We go out from this place into the world. A hurting world. A world in need of good news. In need of love. In need of hope. Let us go forth from this place, committed to our role as modern-day disciples of Jesus. Resolved to bring, in our words and actions, God’s love to those whom we meet. It will not always be easy. Jesus never promised anyone that. But do it we will. Hallelujah anyhow!

Second Sunday of Easter; Year C

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


The Rev. Suzi Holding

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

In a staff meeting a few weeks ago, our deacon Sue looked out on the lawn (the actual lawn, not our astro turf courtyard) and remarked…”grass is the miracle plant….you look at in winter and it looks like it won’t ever come back…and then it does…and it seems greener than ever before!”

This is such a lovely and energizing time of year as we see the green shoots burst forth from the ground, bearing buds of different varieties and colors, watch assorted foliage beginning to unfurl, notice the greening of the trees as new leaves begin to sprout.

This time of year Creation conspires to remind us that new life abounds. This is the reassurance that spring brings.

Creation is resplendent with signs of resurrection…such is the cycle of nature, that death is transformed into new life…signs of new life spring up all around.

Having these images of new growth seem apropos when we think Easter…not just these signs of spring and cute little bunnies, but the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.

In John’s account we hear that it is early on the first day of the week, still dark. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid. She had been with Jesus through it all and I imagine was in shock after the events of those past few days. If you have ever lost someone very dear, you know that those early days of grief are surreal.

So she tends to the familiar rituals of grieving, intending to anoint his body with spices and oil. 

She saw the stone removed from in front of it and she ran back to the men to tell them and they in turn ran to see for themselves….they saw the same thing but did not understand the significance and went back to their homes.

Mary on the other hand stayed…as she had done at the cross…as she had done from the first moment she met Jesus and her life was forever changed… and now she stood weeping, just outside the tomb…she peaked her head inside… and saw two white angels who asked her….why are you weeping? And she answers that her Lord is gone.

She notices a man just outside the tomb who also asks her that same question…but also another one, Whom are you looking for?

This man, she supposed him to be the gardener… (Jesus inexplicably bound with creation, all living things).

Sometimes we see what we expect to see…a gardener in a garden…rather than see the unexpected, the risen Christ in our midst.

I have read this passage many times, preached on it several times, looked at countless depictions of art work of this particular encounter between Jesus and Mary, many of these works of art showing him with gardening hat and hoe or shovel. And I admit that I have found it a bit amusing that Mary did not recognize Jesus and mistook him for the gardener.

And yet for some reason, this season it has struck me in a profound way. Perhaps it is because gardening is on my mind. My daughter has become quite environmentally conscious and is telling me what pollinators I should plant. Perhaps it is because earth day is tomorrow and earth care is more critical now than ever.

When asked “Whom are you looking for?” Mary sees the gardener. John, the writer of this Gospel chooses his words and images carefully and what he says often has layers of meaning attached to it. They are complex and profound and nothing accidental. 

So it occurs to me that this image of Gardner is not random or trivial. This is not a case of mistaken identity.

John places Jesus’ tomb in a garden, and we are reminded of that first garden of creation, the Garden of Eden - On the 3rd day dry land, seas, plants and trees were created.

This garden of the tomb, a place of death, brought forth the first fruits of the resurrection, new life on the third day.

Mary Magdalene thought she met the gardener. She was right. Was it a mistake, or perhaps not a mistake at all. Maybe she saw what she needed to see. Jesus had certainly played a gardener role in her life. Not only was he her teacher, but he was so much more. This gardener knows her, warts and all. This gardener showed her what it meant to be loved, truly deeply loved, without condition, without judgement….and showed her how to love in return.

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope who helped spur the expansive spread of Christianity in the late sixth century, in his sermon on this passage said “Perhaps this woman was not as mistaken as she appeared to be when she believed that Jesus was a gardener. Was he not spiritually a gardener for her when he planted fruitful seeds of virtue on her heart by the force of his love?”

The man asked Mary “Whom are you looking for?” and she saw a gardener.

A gardener’s work is earthy and intimate. Gardeners have their hands in the humus, in the dirt.  Gardeners handle things with living hands… Tending, nurturing, caring, tilling, being attentive to good soil, sufficiently watering, planting seeds.

And isn’t Jesus always planting seeds, even when we don’t recognize them, even when they begin to sprout. He himself said a few days before “unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12: 24). Even many of the parables, teaching stories he told were about planting, growing, pruning and watering…even fertilizing with manure (Luke 13: 6-9).

Jesus is the Gardener of our souls….by watering the seeds of faith within us.

His hands get dirty in the soil of our hearts.

We see Jesus as cultivating new life…cultivating resurrection life, resurrection hope, resurrection promise.  Cultivating us with care so we grow and flourish…

Nurturing, encouraging, fostering, enriching us.

I am guessing that Jesus has the most amazing green thumb and can make anything grow. He will nurture you to a fruitful state, he will fertilize to heal and strengthen you, and prune to thrive.

Jesus as gardener connects us with the created order…where we see God’s promise of renewal and also our call to be stewards of all God’s creation, all God’s living things.

Martin Luther, sixteenth century reformer, has said… “Our Lord has written the promise of Resurrection, not in books alone but in every green leaf in spring-time.”

A few years ago I took a class on the Church and Sustainability. A Korean student was in the class and as part of his final project he shared with us a video of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, an area created nearly sixty years ago, the land was ravaged by the war, nothing left. The video began with images of the devastation and barrenness of this once fertile land… an approximately two-mile wide swath of land bound on both sides by barbed wire, stretching across the 155-mile width of the Korean peninsula. Because the zone is off-limits to human development, it has become a vibrant ecosystem, a haven for protected and endangered animal and plant species, a habitat restored, renewed, regrown.

The images of this renewal were astounding…the message even more profound…from the many who had sacrificed their lives in war, a garden had blossomed, …a remnant of violent conflict became the symbol of a greener, more peaceful future.

In the unique event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our faith stands on the promise of Jesus’ triumphant victory over death…in all of its forms. The hymn, “Now the Green Blade Riseth” which we will sing in just a bit, says it all. The tune is perhaps better known as a Christmas carol but the words are all about Easter…

In the grave they laid him, Love whom hate had slain…(verse 2)

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain

He that for three days in the grave had lain,

Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green (verse 3)

That is the good news of Easter….new life, new hope,

That is the invitation of Jesus…our gardener….

Jesus as gardener is not Easter fluff, but is something real, the answer to the question “Whom are you looking for?” Consider…where you are meeting the risen Lord in your life? where you are seeing God's newness in your life? How you might continue to nurture that new growth?

As we hear news reports coming in about the violent attacks in Sri Lanka, including three churches where people were worshiping on Easter morning, we must proclaim that the resurrection is real…so many have witnessed it in their lives, God proclaims it in creation. Life inexplicably follows death; that is the Christian hope and promise.

May Christ the gardener nurture our faith and strengthen our hope, especially in times of new life, so we may see and live the Easter promise.

Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118: 14-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18