The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 26, 2019
From Jesus in the Gospel of John just read: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and” – get this – “make our home with them.”
Some of you know I like to fly fish. Connecting to God’s creation in this way makes me very attentive to how ecosystems operate. To oversimplify for a moment, if anything in the system gets out of kilter – if the water flow significantly changes or its quality degrades; if the invertebrates that live in the water, the bugs, are harmed in any way; if the aquatic vegetation that is supposed to be there is damaged or invaded by exotics; everything else in that system is compromised, including the fish. Likewise, if each and all those things are healthy the entire system is healthy. This teaches us that the way God has created the world is the most diverse systems are the ones that are the healthiest. It also teaches us that each part of the system must work for the benefit of the other in order to be healthy.
Or ponder two protons. If two of them are in close proximity, as in within the magnetic field of the other, and both are spinning in the same direction, say clockwise, but then one is sent off several million light years away from the other in a neat device called a cyclotron, and then receives an electrical charge to start spinning in the other direction, counterclockwise, guess what happens? The other one, millions of light years away ALSO starts spinning in the opposite direction.
Or maybe you have heard of something called the butterfly effect. There are a lot of variations, but essentially it says something like if a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, you will feel the breeze on your cheek here in McClellanville. It’s a poetic way of saying what the other two examples are saying – that everything is connected. The way that God has created the universe is that everything is in relationship with everything else and one thing cannot happen in one place without it in some way affecting another. We are inextricably linked together in this creation, sometimes in ways in which we are not immediately aware.
And then, what God does, in the midst of this splendid, beautiful, diverse, sometimes puzzling or even cruel universe, is send Jesus, perfect love, right into the middle of us. Jesus says he and the Creator of the universe, through the Spirit, “make our home with them!” We celebrate this truth in our confirmands today as well as in the renewal of our own baptismal vows. Jesus is saying that our relationship with God is being totally redefined by him. As a sign of our connectedness, the Holy Spirit, in whom we are sealed forever, is sent as an Advocate, a continual reminder of God’s love that binds us to God and one another always and everywhere. We are held in the truth that connects and holds the entire universe together—God’s love. God has created the universe in a way that it is all connected.
And even as science shows the connectedness of all things, it is clear to me that the binding agent of a stream ecosystem, or the protons of matter, or the flap of a butterfly wing, is the Spirit of God’s love holding it all together. When there is life and evidence of God’s new Jerusalem, the re-created world of God’s vision breaking in among us, there is the resurrection hope of God’s love holding it together.
We find that we are made for relationships with God and one another, for connection. St. Paul’s vision contains the plea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” We have heard similar words in our own Diocese. “Come over to Walterboro and help us. Come over to Cheraw and help us.” Come over to Denmark, or Florence, or Myrtle Beach or Summerville, name a community, and help us. We even are to risk going “outside the gate,” as the disciples did in the Acts 16 account, looking for and open to wherever God is present and active.
Jesus teaches us that the connecting agent is love, shown forth in the way that we live on this earth. If God has told us once, God in Scripture has told us a thousand times, the answer is love. Not mere tolerance, not just patience or kindness, not only being nice. Those things are great, but they are only of Christ if they are rooted in love – passionate, dancing-with-our-arms-wide-open love for everyone and everything God has made. The love Jesus shows in making his home in us calls us in life to be an offering to God and one another in thanksgiving for the gift of life we have in this amazingly connected world. As a follower of Jesus all of life is to be an act of thanksgiving. When we do so, lives are changed. This is what the confirmands are boldly professing with us as they come forward.
I leave you with these words from an American theologian way back in the 1950’s named Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context in history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27), for we boldly proclaim today that Love has made a home in us.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 19, 2019
Have you ever had a dream, a vision, a new awareness, which dramatically shifted how you saw the world or your own life-circumstance? Some years ago a person told me of a dream that had such an impact on her. By tradition and some theological reasons, she was opposed to the ordination of women. Her dream was of herself in church, standing and singing the processional hymn.
This particular day asperges were being done, that is, the priest was sprinkling the congregation with lustral water, blessed to remind them of their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. All was as usual until she glanced at the procession in anticipation of the priest coming closer to where she stood, but all she saw was the hood of the alb pulled up in a manner not to be able to see the clergyperson’s face. Just as the priest coming up the aisle turned toward her to snap the aspergillum and cast through the air the blessed holy water, she looked at the priest and saw her own face staring right at her, as in a mirror. Hello Dr. Carl Jung. Here comes the punch line: A few years later she was ordained a priest of The Episcopal Church.
This woman’s dream enabled her to consider the possibility of moving beyond the limits of religion that she and others had imposed on at least half of the human population of the earth. We hear in the Acts of the Apostles today a vision that came to Peter that dramatically challenged his religious sensibilities. He accepted the centuries old teachings of the Torah, the laws and guidelines of his faith as found in the Hebrew scriptures, which specifically banned certain items of food as unclean. Shockingly, and we really must appreciate how world-rocking this new vision would have been to Peter and the rest of “the circumcised believers” around him, those dietary restrictions are now set aside. His whole religious system was blown apart.
It went further than food. It was also about the company he kept. The criticism leveled upon Peter came quickly. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” He explained that it was while he was in prayer that the vision came to him. He objected, still seeing unclean animals. Then came the words that changed everything: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” A moment of fun with words reminds us that the word profane literally means “outside of the temple.” All that was previously kept out of the temple, deemed not worthy of the temple, was now understood to be welcome.
As you might imagine, it took Peter a long time to bring his own life and actions into line with this new understanding. And as is often the case, it can take years, centuries even, for theology to catch up to an experience of the Holy Spirit. Jesus in his teaching, and now Peter, were blowing the doors off and throwing up the windows to allow the Wind, capital “W,” to blow. To the contrary, centuries of religious dogmatism has too often tried to put the doors back on and slam shut the windows. Two-thousand years later a lot of what we deal with in the Church and right in our own Diocese reveals this struggle.
Like with Peter, if I may be so bold, much of our work has been helping people claim for themselves their God-given cleanness, made in the image of God and of inherent worth, for no other reason than that they were created. Our desire is to respect the dignity of every human being for that exact reason. We hope and trust that in the power of the Spirit we are proclaiming a word of hope for many who have been told by the Church that they are profane, even an abomination, causing incalculable harm to God’s people whether it be because of race, economic status, origin of birth, sexual orientation, gender, perceived disability, or any other way we have and still do declare people as “other.”
To be an Easter person is to be daringly open to the ways in which God is breaking in with new life. In Christ we are liberated to be co-creators with God of the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1) that God is always seeking to establish among us and through us. This is not mere optimism that just hopes for the best. It is joining the Jesus movement that sends us forth to confront the lies that perpetuate dignity-denying death, rather than embracing the way of Jesus and the Realm of God he inaugurated. The assault of manipulations of fear and anger must not take the place of our Gospel priorities. When the world attempts to seduce us with the expedience of violence or war we say no, even drawing on the historically proven reality that civil resistance is at least twice as effective as armed struggle. We choose the way of life and confront intransigence and small-thinking, not falling again into the trap from which St. Peter was set free by the risen Christ. We stand on Jesus’ words: “Love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This love is costly. It is sacrificial. It is grateful. It is how people will know that we are his disciples (see John 13:35).
If we are to boldly sing “alleluia,” we must do so with the same kind of integrity born in Jesus’ resurrection and manifested in Peter’s vision. Our “alleluia” must remain connected to the real issues of our world and the transformation of all the ways we limit God’s love, having a sometimes convenient amnesia of our baptismal vow to renounce evil in all its forms and claim the way of Jesus, the way of love. Pray, remembering that God has “made of one blood all the peoples of the earth” (BCP, p. 100, second Collect for Mission). God’s embrace is big. It is wide. It is global. It is universal (catholic). What God has made clean we must never, ever, call profane.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 12, 2019
I am intrigued by the vision given us in Revelation today. It speaks of God’s people as a great multitude, “that no one can count.” It is an amazingly diverse multitude of every nation, tribe, people and language. All worship. All are robed in white. All.
Then there is that huge word, “salvation.” It belongs to the Lamb. We throw such words around in church assuming everyone knows what they mean. Here, salvation is more than personal experience. It is about restoration, renewal, re-creation, and it applies to individuals yes, but even more to all of heaven and all of earth. Who in their right mind, living on planet earth, doesn’t long for a new creation, “on earth as it is in heaven?”
And yet it does often come down to the personal, doesn’t it? Do any of you recall a song called “Tears in Heaven,” written by a musician named Eric Clapton back in 1991? The song is a memorial to his son Connor, who at four years old, fell 50 stories to his death from a New York City apartment building. Working through his pain, Clapton’s lyrics ask questions from a heart-broken, grieving father: “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” “Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?” “Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven?”
Listen to how Revelation responds. The multitude spoken of is not merely a nameless blob. They have identities. A few verses before today’s Gospel reading Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” They are Tabitha and Paul, Lazarus and John, Peter and Simon, yours and my mothers and fathers, our and other’s loved ones, refugees, immigrants, martyrs, people of the disassociated diocese, Connor, and all the company of heaven. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” These are some possible responses to Mr. Clapton’s longings expressed in his song, even echoing Revelation today when he sings, “Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure; And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.”
Whatever salvation means, including the realization of a new heaven and a new earth, it is apparently not stingy or limited. We cannot control it or set boundaries on it. Again, it belongs to the Lamb and is for a great multitude no one can number.
The Jesus we discover today is the shepherd. He knows us. He calls us and our life of prayer and worship helps us to recognize his voice when he speaks. This same shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love. It is an intimate longing by God for each of us, mirrored in Clapton’s longing for his own child.
Death is powerless to dissolve God’s love of us, again Jesus saying, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly saving people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous, in his kingdom vision where he was always expanding borders, forever gathering the great multitude. Caroline, I hope you know that’s part of what you’re getting yourself into today by coming forward to make your vows. We promise to go with you on that journey.
Claiming Jesus’ vision as our own, do we find ourselves disturbed that not only the rhetoric, but also many of the actions of the world seems to be increasing in volume and frequency that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, ant-gay, anti-Semitic – language that constricts us and makes us smaller? Jesus, in his teaching about the Reign of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different. He teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed about with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find just one who is lost. It raises for us the question of what kind of community we are building, what kind of faith we want others to see in us, “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The multitude.
In the first century church the distinctions of the day for rights and privileges among Gentile/Jew, male/female, were done away with, destroyed in the embrace of Christ. We are called again today to gather around Jesus, not ideologies, not our fear. It might make us a bit nervous. Seemingly reckless and extravagant love got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included who we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have.
Let’s go back to the vision in Revelation. “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages,” that huge, without-limit throng before the throne of the Lamb, embraced by the promise of eternal union with God. The world is hungry for this kind of love and we are to be making it real even now.
So to Mr. Clapton, speaking a question to his son and perhaps, also to God, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would you hold my hand, if I saw you in heaven?” Yes, a thousand times yes. For Jesus is risen, and “no one will snatch us out of his hand.”
Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
“Feed my sheep.” We hear these words of Jesus to Peter in a specific context. We are in the midst of our Easter celebration of the Great 50 Days. We hear them in the context, as always, of our personal life situation and whatever we carry in our hearts as we walk through the doors. We hear them in the context of the life of this magnificent Cathedral Church as you continue to fulfill your ministry as a center of prayer, worship and mission in the service of Christ’s people. We hear them in the context of those receiving the laying on of hands from the Bishop, and through the apostolic office reminding all of us of our connection to the Church of all generations, past, present and future, each of us joined to Jesus by our baptism into his death and resurrection.
“Feed my sheep” comes too in the context of today’s readings, where we discover two amazing encounters with the Risen Christ. One is where we find Paul on a business trip riding a horse to the city of Damascus. Along the way his life of violent persecution of Jesus’ followers is challenged. Knocked to the ground and blinded, he was completely undone. His entire worldview died right there and like scales falling from his eyes, he was raised to see a new possibility, a new truth. He is baptized and Christ becomes his new identity.
The other occurs on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, back in Galilee, where the fishermen disciples return to work at their former livelihood after the events of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. They are catching nothing (I hate when that happens), only to come into an amazing abundance of fish when the Risen Jesus shows up and Peter himself, after denying Jesus 3 times during Jesus’ trial, is beautifully restored to the community, healed and forgiven by a 3-time call to love.
Both events speak to God’s power to change lives, to redirect them for God’s purposes on the earth and yes, even our lives, which occasionally get off-track. Yet be aware that what we see in Paul and Peter is not a mere realignment of thoughts and emotions. This is about death to life. This is about liberation. It is about an entire new identity where “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice too that the life-changing events were not only for the benefit of the individuals receiving the gift. Even more it is to bear witness to the work of God for the sake of others, bringing new life into their midst, seeing even in the present moment the new creation, the new heaven and new earth God seeks to make real in his vision of love that ushers in justice, peace and dignity for all people. That’s the business of “feeding sheep.”
Let me tell you of a disciple not unlike Paul or Peter, who in her own life, witnesses to the life of the Risen Christ. Her name is Allouise Story, who does not allow fear or even the status quo define her or her world. Allouise is elderly, widowed, and the only occupant of a magnificent, dazzling white house in the midst of an urban ghetto. Her home has polished oak moldings, furniture covered with plastic – neat and tidy. She’s thought about moving away.
Outside, across the alley, is Doc’s Liquor Store. Patrons are found slouched against tree trunks and get into no-good. This infuriates Allouise. In her house are two pianos and an organ that she plays every day and when the weather is nice, she has the windows open so that music can escape to fill the neighborhood with an alternative sound, a feast of the ears. Outside she sees the children of the street and worries for their future.
She, if anyone, has the right to panic and weep. She has watched the rotting of the neighborhood. But she maintains that house as a sheer act of the will to show that not everything or everyone must succumb to decay or leave the city in order to survive. Her very presence is a symbol of life despite the odds. Ordinarily one might see an elderly woman in the city and think of her as powerless, but not Allouise. She is full of power.
It is said she prays the Lord’s Prayer so clearly and firmly that when she says “Amen” it makes people jump. She fights for good education and good teachers. She maintains the struggle with signs of defeat all around: just like in the Bible events today of no catch of fish, betrayals, acts of violence against people; but, she never descends into self-pity. Allouise sings the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” so powerfully that someone said, “No one should be able to sing it like that.”
When asked why she hasn’t followed up on her plans to move, Allouise responds, “I don’t see it the same anymore. The people outside my windows aren’t my enemies. Gosh, they’re not even my project. They’re God’s beloved children. The Lord says ‘feed my sheep.’ I am his, and this is how he has called me to do it.” Plans change. Paul was on a horse to Damascus. His plans changed. Peter and the apostles were looking to return to what they knew, fishing. Plans changed. Three years ago I thought I was retiring. Again, plans changed. Saying one’s prayer can be dangerous – plans can change if we’re listening. We are all being prepared, just as all of you coming forward are, to be ever more clear of the call to love by feeding the sheep Jesus gives us. Allouise, you, me, we are called to live this truth, to be this truth.
It has been said that the great Easter truth is not so much that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the Resurrection (Philips Brooks, 1893). And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.