Monday, April 26, 2010

[sermon 20] Easter 4C - Shepherding Community

[This is the text I preached off of -- though definitely not the verbatim text that actually came out of my mouth; for that, click the mp3 link at the bottom if you want. The Scriptures were all an adaptation of the NRSV and The Inclusive Bible -- with Annie playing Marty Haugen's "Shepherd Me, O God" for Psalm 23 -- and are at the bottom, just before the audiolink.]

Easter 4C - April 25, 2010
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30
Shepherding Community

Will you pray with me?
Jesus, three times you said to Simon Peter, the rock on whom you built your Church: "Do you love me? Feed my sheep." May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be filled with love for you and for each other, may they be food that will nourish and sustain us. Amen.
I promise not to rehash Sean's sermon from last week; I just love that particular bit of lectionary.

I'm not actually going to talk about sheep at all. When I first read today's lectionary, they seemed the obvious connecting thread -- except for the Acts passage -- and I think maybe my literature major self got stuck there. My friend Sophia, in contrast, after I'd told her about my lack of inspiration, read through the assigned lectionary texts and said: "I feel like there's something there, but it's sort of scattered and hard to get at beyond the obvious bent of the lectionary towards 'Jesus shows She is God by healing people, restoring them to community, and freeing them from fear and sorrow, and then bestowing on Her followers the ability to do the same.' "

I kinda just wanna leave it at that and sit down now 'cause that preaches all on its own, but that's a bit of a cheat. So let's dig into this idea a bit more.

Jesus restores people to community and empowers Her disciples to do the same. Okay, that's not exactly what Sophia said, but it's equally true.

At Lenten morning prayer this year at First Church Somerville, UCC, we read through most of the Gospel of Mark, and so when I read, "Tabitha, get up," in today's reading from the Book of Acts, my first thought was of Jesus saying, "Talitha, cum" -- "little girl, get up" (Mark 5:41).

That story is actually strikingly similar to the Acts story we read today. In Mark we read, in part:
They came to Jairus' house and Jesus noticed all the commotion, with people weeping and wailing unrestrainedly. Jesus went in and said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." At this, they began to ridicule Jesus, and Jesus told everyone to leave. Jesus took the child's mother and father and those who had come with Jesus and put them outside and entered the room where the child lay. Taking her hand, Jesus said to her, "Talitha, koum!" which means, "Little girl, get up!" Immediately the girl, who was twelve years old, got up and began to walk about. At this they were overcome with amazement. Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:38-43)
Both times, those who loved the deceased woman are weeping and mourning, and someone begs a healer to come, and having arrived, the healer sends everyone else away and invites the deceased to rise -- as if she had only been sleeping. The healing occurs one-on-one, in private. But after the person is restored to life, the rest of the community re-encounters her. Being restored to life means also being restored to community.

Tabitha, or Dorcas, is identified as a disciple, and my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says that this is the only time in the entire New Testament that the female word for "disciple" is used. That's kind of a big deal.

But restoration to community doesn't only happen to "good" people.

The Acts passage last week was the story of Saul's conversion. In persecuting those perceived to be heretics, Saul was serving God the best way Saul knew how. But God appears to Saul in a vision of the Risen Christ and says, "You're persecuting ME."

Christ doesn't just convert Saul on the spot, though. Christ incapacitates Saul and then sends the disciple Ananias to heal Saul.

Ananias, knowing Saul's history of persecuting followers of the Christ, says, "Are you kidding me? This person has authority to KILL us and you want me to not only bring myself before this person but also to bring this person back to full capacity?"

And Christ says to Ananias, "Go anyway. Saul is the instrument I have chosen to bring my Name to Gentiles, to rulers, and to the people of Israel" (The Inclusive Bible).

The resurrection of Tabitha comes in between the story of Saul -- who after his conversion will continue to declare his strong Jewish credentials in many of his letters -- and the story of Peter's vision of clean and unclean food -- the beginning of Peter's ministry to the Gentiles.

Joppa is one of the oldest port cities in the world -- now known as Jaffa, in Tel Aviv.

Port cities are liminal places, right?

Tabitha is singled out both in the Book of Acts and in the lectionary as someone whose discipleship is particularly remarkable. So in some ways we could see her as an "insider" in the early Christian movement.

But she's also identified with both an Aramaic and a Greek name. My friend Sophia wondered whether she was mixed-race, or mixed-identity in some other way. What liminal spaces does she occupy, living here on the edge of the land, known by two different names? Sophia suggested, "There are lots of ways for her to have trouble communicating her whole self to the people around her."

In my reflection the first week of Easter, I reminded us that resurrection changes things -- the risen Christ is not the same as the human Jesus who was crucified. Coming out is also a resurrection idea. We emerge from the oppressive darkness that has kept us from full life and we are transfigured, able to be transparent to the ground of our being, to shine with the light of divine love.

I don't think that any of us are empowered to literally bring people back from the dead, but we are empowered to help people communicate their whole selves to those around them.

In our Welcome here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, we often say: "You are welcome here not 'in spite of' who you are, but because of who you are." We invite you to bring your whole self, and hopefully the practice of doing that every week here strengthens us to do that out in the world the other six and a half days a week -- to be honest about our whole selves and to be open to the whole selves of other children of God, including the parts we maybe don't personally like so much in ourselves and in each other, to create a safe space where people can BE their whole selves.

A pastor recently commented to me that being present with people is the essence of pastoral care. Reflecting on that later, I thought about how being present with people in a truly genuine and loving way enables them to be their authentic selves, to live into the fullness of who God created them to be.

And so in these resurrection stories, the healer is genuinely attentively present with the other person, and is empowered to restore them to individual life and to community life, and I think implicitly to a life that is richer and fuller than the one they had before.

In today's Acts passage, we hear that because of Peter's action, many came to believe in Jesus Christ.

They didn't come to believe in Peter -- who was the one who actually showed up in the flesh and raised this woman from the dead. They came to believe in Jesus Christ. They saw the power that Peter had, the power to restore to abundant life, and they gave their hearts to the Source of that power and love. For "credo," which we translate "believe," doesn't mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions but rather to give one's heart to.

The Mark story I recalled for us earlier contains one of many instances of Mark's Messianic Secret -- Jesus saying, "Don't tell anyone about this." There are a lot of possible explanations for Mark's Messianic Secret, and one of them is that Jesus wanted the focus to be on the good work that was being done, not on the particular human being who was doing it.

In some ways, I think today's John reading echoes the Messianic Secret. People keep hounding Jesus to proclaim, "I am the Messiah," and Jesus says, "You don't get it, do you? You seek declarations in words, but my deeds testify to who I am. It's not about the titles bestowed on me, but about what I do."

Throughout Eastertide we read excerpts from the Acts of the Apostles. Not the "statements of belief" of the apostles. Not the "codified doctrine" of the apostles. But the Acts of the apostles.

In the book Loving Jesus, Mark Allan Powell proposes that "The mission of the church is to love Jesus Christ; everything else is just strategy" (178). And last week's lectionary reminds us that we do this by feeding each other.

A commentary I once heard on the 23rd Psalm that really stuck with me was on the ambiguity of "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." That the intuitive interpretation is that you get to have a table prepared for you while your enemies look on, displeased at your good fortune, with an implication that your enemies are not partaking of this bounty -- because they're the defeated foe. But what if you were all at table TOGETHER?

This table here, this Communion table, is open to ALL.

That table over there, those tables we will bring out for dinner after our worship service is over, those tables are open to ALL.

There's a quotation I'm always attributing to Corrie ten Boom, but the Internet informs me that the correct attribution is Joanna Macy, a Ph.D. in comparative religion. The quotation is, "The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." Apparently the source is a meditation exercise she developed to help people respond to the world's pain. Describing an exercise called "Breathing Through," she writes, "If you experience an ache in the chest, a pressure within the rib case, that is all right. The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing."

Have you ever had that feeling that you feel like your heart is so full -- be it with sorrow or with joy -- that it's going to break your very chest open?

I wonder if that's what God feels like all the time.

God so loved the world that God Incarnated to be with us more fully, and the Incarnate God suffered as humans suffered, even unto death, and conquered death so that we might all partake of the abundant life that God has always desired for us. This is the joyous mystery we celebrate every Easter, every Sunday, and every day. And part of this mystery is that we are empowered to continue Christ's work -- to conquer the forces of death and bring people, ourselves included, into life abundant.

Today's Revelation passage originally says, "washed in the blood of the Lamb," which I suspect you already knew. One of the things that this church, with its discomfort with blood atonement theology, has taught me is to swap out "love" for "blood" in, for example, hymns. You might be surprised at how little this changes the meaning. For God, in the incarnate person of Jesus the Christ and always, pours out abundant love for us.

And Divine Love is sufficient to make anything new -- to make clean and fresh that which has been stained by suffering and pain.

And there is a way in which divine love is poured out like blood shed, because God suffers with us. When we are wounded, God is wounded, too. This reminder both comforts us when we feel alone and also reminds us not to hurt others, for they are beloved children of God just as we are.

Carolyn reminded me that this is Earth Sunday. We are reminded in today's lectionary readings that God's kindom includes green pastures and still waters. God's kindom is a place where no one will suffer scorching heat but will be led to springs of the water life. God's kindom is a place where no one will hunger or thirst.

We're called to bring about that kindom here on Earth. We are called to prepare tables of abundant welcome. We are called to protect all inhabitants of the planet from heat that scorches and kills. And we are called to do all this in love.

And so I send you forth, assured in the love that God has for you, and challenged to share that love with all.


Acts 9:36-43

36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. They washed her body and laid her in an upstairs room. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two messengers to Peter with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them, and upon arriving was taken to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside Peter, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then knelt down and prayed. Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41Peter gave her a hand and helped her up. Then calling in all the saints -- including the widows -- Peter showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in Jesus Christ. 43Meanwhile, Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Revelation 7:9-17

9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude beyond number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

14I said to the elder, “You are the one that knows.”

Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the love of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship day and night within the temple, and the One who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in the portico of Solomon. 24The Temple authorities gathered around Jesus and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Parent’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Parent has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Parent’s hand. 30The Parent and I are one.”

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