Saturday, May 16, 2020

Trust Anyway

Sermon from May 10, 2020 (Mother's Day)
John 14:1-14

It’s Mother’s Day, so it won’t surprise you to know that I’ve had my mother on my mind.  She’s living in Jefferson City, in a senior living community.  And, like so many other people right now, she’s basically stuck in her apartment.  She goes to the store from time to time, or goes to see my sister who also lives in Jeff City; but she can’t interact with other people at her complex, and none of us can go inside to see her.  We talk on the phone, and she’s fine … at least as “fine” as anybody can be, in this situation.
But thinking about your mother also takes you back in time.  Yes, that tired and grumpy little boy is me, and the date stamp on the photo tells me I’m 20 months old.  At various points in her life, my mother was a teacher of English and speech, even travel geography later on; teaching is absolutely her passion.  But when my sisters and I were little, she spent most of her time working at home, raising us.  My memories of childhood are largely memories of my mother being there, guiding us, narrating life day by day.
I don’t know whether your parents used catch phrases as they raised you, but my mother certainly had one.  Whenever we kids would leave the house to go do something, my mother would smile and say, “Learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  That may seem precious as you hear it now, but for an impatient little boy, trying to get himself out of the house, it wasn’t precious; it was mostly annoying.  I couldn’t see what her phrase had to do with going to baseball practice.  Of course, she sent us out with that advice in other, harder times, too – when we’d leave to take a big test, or sing a solo, or sit on the bench at the basketball game … again.  Growing up, I didn’t always see how it applied or why it mattered.  But my mother was saying, “Trust in this.  Commit yourself to this.  In everything life brings, no matter how rough things seem, you will come out better if you use the situation to learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  
Fast-forward a few years, and Ann and I had our own kids.  I know I didn’t use my mother’s words exactly, but I think I passed on the same call to Kathryn and Daniel, inviting them to see everything as an chance to learn, to love, and to find the blessing in the moment.  So, I guess I’ve ended up practicing my mother’s mission statement.  Turns out, she was right even if I didn’t always understand why she said what she said.
Trusting even when we don’t understand – that’s a good way to capture what it means to be a follower of Jesus, too.  I hear that message in the Gospel reading this morning, even though the word “trust” never appears.  Instead, the word we hear is “believe.”  You know, like the word “love,” the Greek word for “believe” has a range of meanings in Scripture.  Sometimes, it just means affirming something to be true.  But more often, it means to trust – placing deep, abiding trust in a reality that guides your life, the thing you give yourself up to.
Today, we hear Jesus using “believe” that way at the Last Supper, his parting shot to his friends.  He’s trying to remind his friends of deep truths they’ve known and lived for years, and then commission them to carry on once he returns to the Father.  But first, he has to stop for a little remedial teaching along the way.
He starts off saying, don’t be afraid: “Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1).  Trust this path we’ve been taking together.  Even though I’m about to leave, I’m leaving to prepare a place for you, with me, in my Father’s house.  I’ll bring you there, too, he says, because, after all, you know where we’re going and you know the way. 
The room falls silent until Thomas says what the rest of them are thinking:  Um … “we don’t know where you’re going; how can we know the way?” (14:5).  And Jesus assures him, yes, Thomas, you do know.  I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you know my Father also.” (14:6-7)  And Jesus is probably expecting some collective sighs of, “Oh, yeah, of course, that’s right.” 
But then Philip takes the risk to say what the others are thinking:  Look, he says, just “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8).  And Jesus puts his farewell on hold again to go back to the basics:  He asks Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”  Where is your trust?  “Have I been with you all this time …, and you still do not know me? …  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? … Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me….  [Because, in fact,] the one who believes in me” – the one who trusts in me with everything he’s got, the one who gives herself up to follow this path – they “will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these….” (14:9-12)
I imagine the disciples sitting there, dumbfounded.  Even after following him three years – even after watching him restore sight to the blind and raise the dead – even after all this, they’re still trying to understand what he’s talking about.
To me, here’s the importance of that word we translate as “believe,” the word that means staking your life on something:  You don’t have to understand truth completely in order to trust in it.  At some point, trust takes us beyond understanding – in fact, it gives us “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7).  Rather than answering every question to our satisfaction, Jesus plots our course and guides our hearts, showing us the way even when we wonder what it has to do with the life we’re living now.  When my mother would tell me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” as I left the house for a baseball game, I thought she was crazy.  I was going off to hit a baseball and win a game.  But of course, with those words, she was guiding me wherever I was going – to the ballpark, or to school, or to my first job, or on a date, or to my first apartment, or to my wedding.  I didn’t have to understand the fullness of what she was saying in order for it to be true – or for it to guide the way I lived my life.
Now, hang with me a minute because I think there’s a connection here to the part of this morning’s reading that some of us may struggle with the most.  It’s John 14:6 – Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That verse was my greatest stumbling block as I discerned a call to the priesthood.  Growing up, I’d heard too many folks use it to judge and exclude other people.  There was so much I loved about 99 percent of Jesus’ message, and I hoped seminary would explain how this particular verse fit with God’s call to love everyone.  Guess what?  Seminary didn’t help much.
Now, you can find all kinds of commentary to clarify and expand on what Jesus is saying here.  I particularly like reading this verse as poetry, where words mean what they say but also more than what they say.  When Jesus says, “I am” the way, he’s echoing God from Exodus, and the disciples are in the role of Moses before the burning bush.  Moses spoke to God directly, and asked God’s name, and learned it was, “I AM.”  So, Jesus is saying, I am “I AM,” and of course no one comes to I AM except through I AM.  He and the Father are one, so he is the way to God.
Cool.  But still, the verse says what it says about no one coming to the Father but through Jesus.  So … what about good, faithful non-Christians?  Where do they end up in eternal life?  It’s the question we always want to ask: Who’s in, and who’s out?
Here’s what I believe: Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God for humanity.  Full stop.  No other revelation of God is as full, as complete, as God’s manifestation in Jesus Christ.  That’s what I believe to be true. 
And here’s what I trust: that Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, asks me to follow along the path he marks out.  So, I try to do that, living in eternal life now as a warm-up for the rest of eternal life to come.  That’s what I trust, what I stake my life on. 
And, here’s what I don’t know: the answer to nearly every question that flows from that trust.  Will I get a mansion in heaven?  I don’t know.  Will I get to sit at the table with all my family and eat my mother’s boeuf bourguignon again?  I don’t know.  Will I experience “heaven” as soon as I die, or do I have to wait for Jesus to come again, or has that already happened and we just don’t see it yet?  I don’t know.  Will non-Christians eventually come to see what I see and trust in God the way I do, or does a different eternity await them?  I don’t know.  Instead, I trust that God is love and so God will act in love.  And I feel like that leaves room for God to be God and to work out the details as God sees fit.
Sometimes, our parents know more than we do.  Sometimes they say things that are hard to hear, or that seem inappropriate, or that don’t make any sense – but still, they know more than we do.  I didn’t know what my mother had in mind when she sent me off to the baseball game telling me to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time” – but I tried to live that way anyhow.  Turns out, it wasn’t bad advice for the rest of life, too. 
By the same token, like the disciples, we won’t understand everything Jesus is trying to tell us.  And I think God’s OK with that, as long as we keep our hand on the plow, as the old spiritual says, and hold on to the words Jesus gives us every time we stop and listen.  It’s the divine version of my mother at the back door as I left the house – not so much giving advice as issuing a call: a call to remember, a call to trust, and a call to live that trust day to day.  For my mother, the call was to “learn something, love somebody, and have a good time.”  For Jesus, standing at the back door and calling to us as we head out each day, it’s this:  Love God, love neighbor, and love one another.  You may not be able to explain it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Just trust it, and it will lead you home.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Choosing the New Normal

Sermon for April 26, 2020
1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

In the news recently, we’ve seen and heard a lot about “flattening the curve” of COVID-19, with diagrams showing the rise and eventual fall of the disease’s incidence.  This morning, I’d like to share a different curve with you.  This one comes from Episcopal Relief and Development, the church’s disaster-response agency, and it gives us a picture of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle – whether it’s from a hurricane, or an earthquake … or a pandemic. 
So, what does a disaster’s emotional lifecycle look like? You begin with the “predisaster” period, of course, when life is normal.  Then, the event happens.  Right after that, emotionally, things are pretty good.  There’s a heroic period when people go above and beyond the call.  This heroism and sacrifice bring us to a point of community cohesion, a honeymoon time when we find our emotional footing again, and we cheer each other on as we rise up against the common threat.  You might notice that this stage of a disaster’s emotional lifecycle is pretty short. 
Then, the curve heads south.  That’s the stage of disillusionment, and I would say it’s  where we’re heading now in the coronavirus pandemic.  Thousands have died, and millions have lost their jobs, and the economy is tanking.  And in that pain and fear, old conflicts manifest in new ways.  Bitterness poisons the sweetness of honeymoon.  It’s a long journey to the bottom of that curve.  But eventually, we work through our grief, coming to terms with what’s happened.  And finally, a new normal arises.
 As I said in this week’s newsletter, more and more I’ve been getting the question, “When do you think church will return to normal?”  If that means, “When do you think we’ll worship together again,” I don’t know.  But if we ask the deeper question – “What will our new normal be?” – I think the answer is, “We get to choose.”  This crisis is an opportunity for us to choose to live in resurrection. 
That choice is where we find two of Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel reading.  We hear this story two weeks after Easter, which makes it seem like it must be two episodes later in a Netflix series.  But the Emmaus story happens on Easter day, just a little while after the women tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised, which the guys write off as just “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). 
So, these two disciples are walking to a nearby village later on Easter day when they meet a stranger.  The stranger asks them what they’ve been talking about – what’s their story; what’s their narrative of the events they’ve witnessed.  Well, the narrative they’ve chosen is a narrative of death: hopes raised but dashed; powers challenged but finally having their way.  Even though the women have seen angels who say Jesus is alive, that’s just an idle tale.  For these disciples, it seems pretty clear that death wins in the end.
And I imagine Jesus doing a head smack.  The Gospel writer probably cleans up his response, too, having him say, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe…!” (24:25).  For years, Jesus has been teaching them how their tradition points to God coming to save them not through political victory or military might but through suffering and sacrifice.  Plus, at least three times in the Gospel story Jesus looked his friends in the eye and predicted precisely what would happen: that he’d be betrayed, and delivered to the authorities, and be killed – and then be raised.  And, by the way, that prediction was confirmed by angels standing by an empty tomb.
As the stranger gives them this new narrative, this narrative of life, the two disciples find their “hearts burning within” them (24:32).  But they don’t make the jump to actionable belief, belief that turns you in a new direction – and that’s what Jesus is looking for.  He’s shown them resurrected life in the flesh, but he wants them to want it, too.  Faith isn’t about divine spoon-feeding; it’s about God filling our deepest desires.  So, once the disciples and the stranger get to Emmaus, at the end of Easter day, Jesus says good-bye and heads off toward the next village.  But the two disciples do want more.  They’ve had their hearts strangely warmed, as John Wesley would have said.  So, they ask the stranger to stay – and that desire gives Jesus enough longing, enough hope, to work with. 
So, as they sit at dinner together, Jesus brings them an intervention – a moment of loving reality so vivid they can’t miss it.  He takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them.  
Now, hit the pause button and take a moment to remember, because that’s precisely what Jesus is asking these two disciples, and all of us, to do – to remember.  When have we seen Jesus take bread, and bless it, and break it, and give it to people?  In two different but deeply related settings.  First, this is the storyline for his feeding miracles.  With thousands of people who have no food, Jesus takes some bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – enough to feed everybody and leave 12 baskets of leftovers.  Second, this is the storyline for the Last Supper.  With his closest friends, Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it – a small amount in their hands but enough to feed them with life that never ends. 
There at the table in Emmaus, I believe Jesus is showing us eternal life in all its fullness:  life we live now, as God satisfies our hunger with overflowing blessing; and life we live forever, as God feeds us for eternity with divine love.  Don’t forget this, Jesus is saying to these two friends.  Don’t forget that eternal life is yours, now and forever.  The word for this in Greek is a word we usually define as “active remembering” – anamnesis, the way the Eucharist brings Jesus actively into our midst, and that’s exactly right.  But the word in Greek is more of an imperative than a description.  Anamnesis means “not amnesia” – not forgetting.  In the midst of “normal” life, be sure not to forget what our new normal is: resurrection, a new birth to life that never ends.
So, go back to that emotional-response curve I showed you a few minutes ago. In the time of initial response, we band together and rally to meet the challenge.  We honor healthcare workers, and first responders, and people keeping grocery stores stocked.  We reach out to each other, and think creatively, and take risks to try new things.  But once the crisis begins to subside, disillusionment sets in.  We long for what was normal because it’s comfortable and comforting.  But the curve shows us we’ve left the old normal behind.  And as we long to return to it, we also risk returning to our divisions.  We’re tempted to buy into those divisions because they’re comfortable, too.  But if we do, we’ll let uncertainty, exhaustion, and fear deepen wounds that already divide us.  Is that what we want to choose?  Is that the life of resurrection, the life Jesus tells us we must not forget?
Here’s another choice.  We could choose a new normal – the new normal of loving one another.  We heard it in the first reading this morning, from 1 Peter.  Jesus dying and rising for us gives us nothing less than a “new birth into a living hope” (1:3).  Because Christ was raised, we can trust that God wants to give us that same reality of new life, both now and eternally.  If that’s true – if life really is eternal, as we claim – we’d better be figuring out now how to live it for the long term.  And how do we learn to do that?  The reading gives us a simple answer:  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds … [if] your faith and hope are set on God … love one another deeply from the heart” (1:17,21,22).  Choosing to love the people around us now, in the practice round for eternity – this is what trains us to live with them forever.  Forever is a long time, after all; so, it’d be good if we got ready for it.
Here’s a case study from our descent into disillusionment on the disaster-response curve.  Not surprisingly, now that we’re in this stage, we’re disagreeing with each other about how and when to open our lives back up for business and social interaction.  Just yesterday, it seems, we were watching people take to the streets to cheer on healthcare workers.  Now, we’re watching people take to the streets to protest for and against getting the country back to work.  And – no surprise – here come the media, highlighting the conflict to serve their own agendas.  Welcome back to our old normal. 
Or, not.  I think this a time for anamnesis, a time for some intentional not-forgetting what eternal, resurrected life looks and feels like.  In our lives before COVID-19, where did we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  Well, we came together to share bread and wine in restaurants, and in our homes, and at this altar.  We served people in need and tried to build relationships with people we didn’t know.  Some of us were learning to listen to people we disagree with, seeking to understand problems rather than yelling about them.  So, remember that, raise it up, and build on it. 
And now, in our lives with COVID-19, where do we see people loving one another deeply from the heart?  We see news reports of people serenading each other from their balconies.  We wave to neighbors we’ve always ignored.  We thank people for the work they do.  We wear masks to put others’ well-being ahead of our own inconvenience.  We drive by and honk in front of people’s homes to wish them happy birthday or happy graduation.  We see restaurateurs serving people who can’t afford food.  We see companies making hand sanitizer instead of whisky (only temporarily, thank God).  Think about it: What has left your heart strangely warmed in this peculiar time?  Remember that, raise it up, and build on it. 
It’s been said this is our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.  Maybe it has been.  But now, we’re moving toward a different moment – perhaps our Marshall Plan moment.  Because out of the death and chaos of World War II, we chose not to return to the old normal.  We chose a new normal, one that both rebuilt Europeans’ lives and built up Western economies.  So now, in a time of disillusionment, we have the chance to think about which “normal” we will choose.  How will we answer Jesus’ call to love one another deeply from the heart? 
Like the disciples on Easter afternoon, we can either choose a narrative of isolation, fear, division, and death – or we can remember a different narrative, the story of resurrection.  We can live as though we actually believe life is eternal and already begun among us.  If the Easter story tells us nothing else, it makes us remember that God can take isolation, fear, division, and death, and use it to heal a world aching for hope and common purpose.  We must choose not to forget it.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Looking for Resurrection

Sermon for Easter Day, April 12, 2020
John 20:1-18

You know, I think we’d be forgiven if today doesn’t feel much like Easter.  Here at St. Andrew’s, there are no kids with Easter baskets running through the churchyard.  There are just the four of us here in the room this morning, appropriately distanced.  You know, just in case you were wondering, seeing the pews empty on Easter morning is right up there on the top-10 list of a priest’s recurring nightmares.
It’s hard to see new life when you feel afraid and alone.  So far in this Holy Week, we’ve traveled with Jesus to betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, and burial.  And at the same time, as cosmic timing would have it, we’ve watched coronavirus cases perhaps reach their peak – so far, about 20,000 deaths in our nation.  Last Sunday, the surgeon general described this as our generation’s “Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,” and so it feels.1  As morbidity and mortality reach their peak, and as those of us here in Kansas City begin our 20th day under stay-at-home orders, and as we don masks just to enter the grocery store – we know more about fear and isolation than we’ve ever known before. 
In that fear and isolation, we are not alone.  Try to imagine how the disciples felt after that first Holy Week.  We know the story’s Easter ending even as we walk the way of the cross, but they didn’t.  For Mary Magdalene and Peter and James and John and Andrew and the rest, Sunday was just day 3 since all hell broke loose.  They’d been locking themselves away, deeply fearful of what might happen if they stepped out into the world around them.  Maybe the plot was bigger than Judas.  They didn’t know whom to trust; the same authorities who killed their Lord were probably looking for them, too.  Anyone shopping in the market could be a threat.  So, they were staying put – hiding out, hunkered down, isolated, and afraid.
That is, except for Mary Magdalene, the disciple on the front lines.  She can’t stay inside, in relative safety, because she has essential work to do.  Now that the sabbath day is past, Mary gets up early on Sunday morning; and under the cover of darkness, she goes to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  She figures she’ll do her work as quickly as she can and then get back to hiding out.
But as soon as she gets to the tomb, she sees events have gone from bad to worse.  They only thing more awful than having to bury someone you love is seeing that his body’s been stolen – and God only knows what’s been done to it.  “Really?” Mary is thinking.  “It’s not enough to kill him and lock us all away?”
So, Mary goes back to get Peter and John.  They run through the dark streets, avoiding the people in the market setting up for the day’s work; and they see what Mary saw.  But Peter and John are paralyzed with fear.  And figuring they can’t do anything about this now, they creep back to their hideout in the half-light of dawn.
So, Mary is left there, weeping.  Unable to solve the problem, she sticks her head into the cave tomb – and there she sees the last thing she expects to see: “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying” (John 20:12).  The angels ask her why she’s weeping, and she chokes back tears to tell the awful story. 
Then Mary turns around in the half-light, and she sees someone standing behind her.  She hears him asking what’s wrong; but in her fear and grief, she doesn’t really hear him.  She thinks it’s the gardener, and she’s hoping against hope he knows something – maybe he moved the body from this new, clean tomb to some common pauper’s tomb, someplace fitting for a murdered political prisoner.  She just wants to finish her work and get back into hiding before something else awful happens.  But – as she stumbles through her explanation and tries to find out what the heck’s going on – the man interrupts her. 
“Mary!” 
And in Mary’s world, everything changes.  It’s not the gardener, it’s Jesus – himself, but not exactly like himself.  She tries to hold him, but now’s not the time, he says.  Instead, she’s got new work to do – not scuttling through dark streets and hiding out, but the work of witnessing.  Mary finds her voice, and she goes back to the hideout to say the only words that could have made dawn break for Jesus’ friends that day.  She tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18).  Her message of resurrection boils down to the one thing the disciples most needed to hear: that they are not alone.
We might wonder why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus as soon as he appeared.  Part of it has to do with the new life of resurrection itself.  There’s a difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  Earlier in the Gospel story, the dead man Lazarus had been resuscitated – absolutely a miracle, but Lazarus’ earthly body eventually would die again.  Resurrection is different.  The resurrected Jesus is completely himself, but he’s also different than the man his friends had known.  The resurrected Jesus can pass through locked doors yet still enjoy a good fish dinner.  The resurrected Jesus can be in Jerusalem, appearing to the disciples, but also on the road to Emmaus, appearing to some of the story’s minor characters.  In resurrected life, we are ourselves, but different. 
So, that’s one reason Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus, but I think there’s more to it than that.  It’s also about Mary.  Remember, in that moment, Mary is a case study in what happens to us in isolation and fear.  She’s figuring the authorities will come after her, too.  Since Friday afternoon, she and the other disciples probably haven’t set foot outside.  Now, when she has to go out, she finds her leader’s body is missing.  She’s frustrated and angry … and even more alone than she already felt.  Not only is he dead, but he’s gone.  So, I’m thinking part of the reason Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus is that she feels too afraid and too alone even to conceive of new life being possible.
That is, she doesn’t recognize Jesus until he speaks to her.  This is a stunning part of the story of new life:  In his triumph, having defeated the cosmic powers of sin and death, Jesus doesn’t go to the crowd and perform a miracle.  He doesn’t drive the chief priests and scribes out of the Temple.  He doesn’t take over Pilate’s royal palace.  He shows up in the last way Mary would have expected – as someone like her, someone who gets up early and goes to work, a nobody, a gardener.  Jesus defies everything Mary knew to be true that morning: her isolation, her fear, her own place in God’s heart.  He upends her reality; and, simply by speaking to her, he tells the truth she most needed to hear:  Do not fear, for you’re not alone.
Do not fear, for you’re not alone.  That goes for us, too.  That goes for you, too. 
If we listen, we can hear the risen Christ speaking to us through nothing more special than the stuff of daily life.  That’s because, typically, God doesn’t come to us in thunderous proclamations as much as in a word from the gardener, some unlikely herald of God’s power and presence when we feel weak and alone.  But the thing is, like Mary Magdalene, we have to set aside our fear and loneliness long enough to see and hear God breaking in with life made new.
Like an artist who excels at every medium, God reaches each of us in the forms we can best appreciate.  I see divine life in the beauty and majesty of creation – God’s best work all around us now in spring, the reawakening of earth.  I see divine life in the daily commitment of the young woman across the street from me who drives off in her scrubs each morning to serve others at her own risk.  I hear divine life in the phone calls people don’t have to make but make anyway, just to check and see how someone’s doing.  I see divine life in safely distanced driveway lunches or happy hours with friends on Zoom – moments that remind you how much you love those faces you’ve missed seeing up close.
For me, in the past two weeks, I’ve also seen divine life in the gift of sidewalk art from kids down the street.  I told you last Sunday about the beautiful work I came across walking my dog, concrete squares bearing panels of what looked like stained glass, with this divine imperative:  “You are loved; don’t give up,” a stunning proclamation of hope in the darkness of isolation.  Well, soon after these panels appeared, the rains came – no surprise in a Midwest springtime.  And honestly, that took some wind out of my sails.  Through a few dark days, those chalk panels had felt like God’s Word, reminders that what we see in any moment is not all there is.  And then, the rain washed them away.
But this divine artist was not to be denied.  A few days ago, on that same patch of sidewalk, I found a new message, like flowers tenaciously growing out of rock.  Here it is:  “April distance brings May existence.”  At the top of this image, proclaiming life from a dead concrete slab, there’s a cross against a sunrise.
And you know, if I hadn’t been looking, I’d have walked right over it.
That’s how God brings us resurrection – in the places and the moments we’d least expect.  In normal people’s normal lives.  In health-care workers, and delivery drivers, and custodians … and gardeners.  In flowers that rise up from ground you’d swear was dead.  In gratitude that wells up from deep within us when we see that life and love go on, no matter what. 
We have to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to find him, but he’s there.  Look and listen in the most unlikely places, and you’ll meet the risen Lord.  That’s true even in days like these.  That’s true even when we feel entombed.  Do not fear, Jesus says, for you are not alone.  And with him, you will rise.   

1.      Cummings, William. “‘This is going to be our Pearl Harbor’: Surgeon general warns USA faces worst week of coronavirus outbreak.” USA Today, April 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/05/surgeon-general-jerome-adams-coronavirus-rivals-pearl-harbor-9-11/2950230001/. Accessed April 10, 2020.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Message of Hope in Code

Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020
Psalm 22:1-11; Matthew 27:1-54

Welcome to Palm Sunday – but certainly a different experience of Palm Sunday than usual.  Typically, we’d begin outside in joy, blessing palms and processing around the building, shouting “Hosanna!” and proclaiming Jesus as our king.  Then, once the procession arrived at the door and we entered the church, the service would shift abruptly, almost like whiplash, as we moved toward trial and crucifixion instead.  Today, as we worship under such strange circumstances, with just Dr. Tom and me in the room, we get fewer joyful “hosannas”; and we move even more abruptly than usual to the cross, watching the king gasp for breath.
Maybe that fits this moment in which we find ourselves, that sense of whiplash from joy to sorrow.  A few weeks ago, things were OK for most of us, right up until they weren’t.  And now I hear so many people feeling cut off, frightened, and alone.  The news each day tells the story of a downward spiral, with bodies being loaded into refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues, states competing for personal protective equipment for their health-care workers, business shutdowns sending millions of people into unemployment.  As we wait for the pandemic to peak, we literally can’t say what the immediate future will hold.  And that can be kind of terrifying.  It can shake our assurance of God’s presence with us, making us wonder, along with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, whether God is there with us or not. 
But this Palm Sunday story, especially as Matthew tells it, is a story of witness to the truth that God is there, no matter what – in fact, that the man on the cross isn’t just a king but God in the flesh.  This is the truth that cannot be denied, despite the story’s downward spiral.  
All through the story, even those who try to take Jesus down can’t help but lift him up.  Pilate, the embodiment of Roman imperial power, argues for Jesus’ innocence and even declares the kingship of his rival on a sign above his head.  Soldiers torturing Jesus also hail him as king.  The crowd accepts the blame for lynching the one God sent to save them.  The chief priests, scribes, and elders come by to mock Jesus on the cross, but even they name him as the king.  And in the end, even silent witnesses speak volumes.  In the Temple, until now God’s dwelling place on earth, the curtain before the holy of holies rips in two.  The earth shakes and the rocks split, the creation itself bearing witness that the one who’s just breathed his last is the same One through whom all things were made.  The truth that it’s God who’s there on the cross – that truth will be proclaimed.
Something similar is going on for us, in our own moment.  God is present in this hard time, a truth that even the worst news can’t deny.  For every death, for every job loss, for every person who can’t pay her rent, there are a hundred stories of the love that unites us.  Kids are handing thank-you letters to sanitation workers.  People are cheering exhausted health-care workers in the street.  Closer to home, parishioners and staff and clergy and Vestry members are calling the people of this church family just to see how they’re holding up.  Sometimes those calls result in voicemail messages, sometimes a quick thank-you, sometimes a need for prayer or more tangible help – and, in at least in one case I know of, the beginning of healing and forgiveness years deferred.  
And these stories of love include serving those beyond us.  Several of you have made gifts to support meals at home for students at Gordon Parks Elementary.  Yesterday, parishioners brought sacks of food and hygiene products for the families of Benjamin Banneker Elementary, many of those bags not just bearing peanut butter and toothpaste but inscribed with messages of love. 
And those stories of love include silent witnesses, too.  Walking my dog, Petey, I saw art from kids down the street who use sidewalk chalk like a painter’s brush, leaving behind an image that to me looks for all the world like stained glass, along with these six words: “You are loved.  Don’t give up!”  Even a walk with the dog testifies to the truth that cannot be denied, the truth of God’s presence with us even in the depths.  And in witness to that truth – on this holy day when we can’t come together and carry palms and shout “Hosanna!” to our Lord – some of us have cut branches from our own yards and hung them as makeshift palms on our front doors to honor the king who has come to love sin and death into submission, despite the cost. 
That power of divine love doesn’t crash into the scene, and fight a decisive battle, and make everything OK again overnight.  At least not yet.  For now, as we await the king’s coming again in the fullness of time, that divine love plays the long game, persisting in the midst of what seems insurmountable evil, aching through it for the opportune time, poised to blossom in victory on the other side. 
We cannot deny our present reality, the downward spiral of the Holy Week story we’re now living – the foolhardiness and failures we see; the weight of our own isolation; the darkness that lurches at us from the shadows, knocking us off balance and making us flee.  All that fear is real, absolutely; and we must not shame ourselves for feeling it.  Instead, we should hold it, and look at it, and see it in relation to the power that will overcome it.  For even in deepest despair, God opens the door to hope. 
I want to leave you with some scripture that might seem like the very last thing you’d want to have in your head and your heart in such a time as this: Psalm 22.  We prayed part of it a few minutes ago.  It’s the source for Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1).  He speaks those words, and we hear terror and abandonment – the human Jesus at the end of his rope.  But like most deeply powerful theological moments, this one is complex.  I think a part of him must have felt terrified and abandoned.  That’s how we’d feel, certainly.  But even from the cross, Jesus leads us to keep looking deeper into the story.  To point us toward hope, he’s sending us a message in code – a code that the enemy, the power of sin and death, can’t break.  It’s a message that God has not abandoned us, despite what we may see and feel; a reminder that even the worst moment is a time to affirm the love that plays the long game.  For when Jesus quotes the start of Psalm 22, I believe he’s pointing to the end of that psalm, as well, the part we didn’t pray earlier.  Like God’s power and love, Psalm 22 doesn’t stop in the moment of dread; it points to the end of the story.  So, I’ll leave you with the verses I believe were in Jesus’ mind as he cried out from the cross, the end of Psalm 22 – that:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *
     and all the families of the nations shall bow
     before him. 
For kingship belongs to the Lord; *
     he rules over the nations. … 
My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; *
     they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. 
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
     the saving deeds that he has done.  (Psalm 22:27,29-30 BCP)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Speaking to Dry Bones

Sermon for March 29, 2020
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

Here we are, in an even more stripped-down version of Sunday-morning worship than last week.  I miss the vocal music as much as you do; and believe me, it’s very strange to be here leading worship with no one else in the room (other than Tom at 10:15).  We’re all trying to be as careful as we can, taking self-quarantine and stay-at-home orders seriously, even as we find virtual ways to come together for prayer and worship.      
So, I guess I could have just gone live from my kitchen on Facebook, but I’m here in this space primarily because of the technology: Many of you are accustomed to livestreaming worship from our website, and it seems good not to monkey around with something that’s working, especially given Facebook’s challenges in handling the digital load.  Plus, being here has the advantage of a setting that matters.  It’s seems right to be able to worship, even virtually, here in our spiritual home, this good and sacred space.  I think it gives us some peace.
Peace is a scarce commodity these days.  In fact, I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve been afraid.  I think that’s a healthy thing to say out loud, because I imagine it’s true for many of us.  For me, it hit home when my wife, Ann, started showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, coughing and running a fever.  As you know, we’re breathing easier now, having received a negative test result on Friday.  But for a few days, I thought maybe the conceptual had become real.  You know, Ann’s lupus always lurks at the edges of our lives, always able to roar back for no apparent reason and take her down, because it’s her heart and lungs the disease usually involves.  I’ve made some peace with that – the fact that, most likely, she will die before I do – but you never make peace with that.  And for a few days, I thought that time was now.
I say all that not because my situation is unique but precisely because – in these strange days – my situation is not unique at all.  Anyone – in a sense, everyone – is at risk.  And everywhere we look, we’re reminded of it.  On the news or social media, it seems every report is about cases spiking up while the economy plunges down.  And we’re hearing all this as we’re stuck at home, of course; so, even our places of refuge have become reminders of isolation.  All that makes us scared. 
And fear is a feeling we’re conditioned to dismiss, we rugged individualists who can overcome anything on our path to self-actualization.  In our culture, it’s really not OK to be afraid.  But here’s the thing:  We are anyway.  Fear is a normal response to abnormal situations.
Here’s another feeling that doesn’t really seem to be OK, especially for people like us, for people of faith; and that’s being angry with God.  Come on, Lord.  Why aren’t you stopping all this?  Have we done something to deserve this pandemic?  Are you testing us?
I don’t believe so.  I don’t believe this virus is from God any more than any other threat in the natural order is from God.  Whether it’s tornadoes, or earthquakes, or poisonous snakes, God lets the creation be the creation, beautiful and threatening, too, sometimes.  It’s the price of putting into place a natural order that creates both my wife’s beautiful eyes and her broken immune system. 
In our two readings this morning, I hear fear, and I hear anger.  The prophet Ezekiel is speaking to people ravaged by decades foreign invasion.  At this point in the story, the people of Israel and Judah have been subject to massive deportations, dragged off to Babylon with only what they could carry.  They’ve got to be afraid, right?  If you think we’re experiencing disruption and dislocation, imagine being conquered and then hauled off to the conquerors’ land.  I’m sure Ezekiel carried plenty of that fear himself, too, as he was led away. 
But there, in enemy territory, he has this vision.  God comes to Ezekiel and shows him a desolate landscape, the stuff of nightmares.  All around him is death and destruction, hopelessness in the flesh – or, actually, hopelessness with no flesh at all.  God asks if Ezekiel thinks these bones can live, and Ezekiel sighs that only God knows.  So, God tells him to prophesy to these bones, to speak for God into this desolation, and bring these bones to life.  Ezekiel looks around; and he must be thinking, “There’s no way, Lord.”  When we’re bound in fear, new life seems about as likely as bones coming together and breathing on their own.
Then we have our reading from John’s Gospel, the latest in our hit parade of the longest Gospel readings ever over the past few weeks.  The story begins with Jesus allowing his friend Lazarus to die.  And once he finally makes his way to be with Lazarus’ family, what he hears is anger, pure and simple.  Martha and Mary – two of Jesus’ closest friends, people who understand his power – they’ve watched their brother die of an illness they had no power to control.  They’ve buried him, and they’re mourning just as we mourn when we lose someone so close it feels like a part of you has been cut off.  Finally, four days late, Jesus shows up, and Martha runs down the road to rage at him:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21).  She can’t imagine why he failed to come and save her brother, and she loves Jesus enough to be completely honest about it: How dare you?  But with her anger out there, Jesus can move her forward, toward new life.
So, in this upside-down time for us – as we seem to be losing our freedom, our connection with each other, and our sense of what’s “normal” – I want to say, first, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to be afraid.  God gets that.  In fact, God got that very directly, coming to inhabit our broken life as one of us – angry enough to turn over tables in the Temple, frightened enough to cry in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It’s OK to join Jesus in being human.
But what we can’t do with our anger and fear is stop there.
Let me share a quick story about a friend of mine.  As you know, six of us from my seminary class have stayed close over the years.  We get together each fall, and talk once a month, because the friendship matters that much.  One of us, Kathy, is in the process of being with her husband as he dies.  He’s making his exit because of long-term health issues, not because of coronavirus.  Kathy is watching her husband go even as she leads a parish and completes her final project for a doctor of ministry degree.  If anybody has a right to be fearful and angry, Kathy does.  Yet, when we talked earlier this week, Kathy was making a different choice.  Here’s what she said: “Death should never change the way we live, other than making us live more fully and more completely.” 
Here’s what my friend Kathy could see – which is the same truth that God showed Ezekiel, the same truth that Jesus showed his friends there at the tomb:  Kathy was reminding us that death never gets the last word.  It’s perfectly OK to be afraid of a journey we’ve never taken before.  And it’s perfectly OK to be angry over the losses we suffer, on all sorts of levels.  But we have the Holy Spirit empowering us to make a choice.  We can remain in fear and anger; God gives us that freedom.  Or, we can choose hope and life instead.  As Jesus said to Martha, after hearing her rage, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) – standing before you, right here, right now.  Death will do what it does, because death is part of the beautiful freedom of God’s creation, seeds falling into the ground and springing up to new and more abundant life.  Death will do what it does, Jesus says, but that’s not the end of the story.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).  Lazarus lies in the tomb but not for long, Jesus says.  And like him, we will be unbound, and we will be set free.
We can choose that story.  We can claim that truth.  And when we do, God uses us as present-day Ezekiels.  In a time of disconnection and fear, in a time when our social lives lie dormant, in a time when we see scattered around us the dry bones of present connections and future plans, the Spirit of the Lord whispers to us – even such as us – and says, Mortal, “prophesy to these bones, and say to them … the Lord God … will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (37:4-5)  .
That’s what the church is here for.  That’s our witness in this disjointed time: to say to the dry bones of life around us that connection and hope are God’s promise even to people in bondage, even to people entombed.  We are here to proclaim a contrast reality – not denying the hardship of this time, not denying our anger and our fear, but proclaiming the truth that this story has an ending that God’s already writing.  And we are God’s instruments in bringing that story to life.
How?  Well, here’s my grand call to action.  Or, rather, here’s my call to a small but still-grand action, perhaps the most lifegiving witness we can make in a time of dry bones.  Here you go:  Once a day, every day, call someone to check in.  Or write a note to say you care.  Or send a text to someone whose house might feel like a tomb.  Speak the Spirit’s love into the dryness and disconnection of these days, and you will help knit dry bones together.  God will use you to roll away the stone and raise the dead to life.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Being the Church, No Matter What

Sermon from March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

If you’re looking for a word from Scripture to describe what it’s like to live in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, we heard it in the first reading this morning:  Making their way through the wilderness, “the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded” (Exodus 17:1); and they wondered, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7).  Maybe we can forgive them for a little complaining, as well as for faltering trust.  They’ve been freed from slavery in Egypt, and they’ve celebrated the new life God’s given them … only to find themselves wandering in the desert with food and water scarce.  Just before today’s reading, they’re starving; and God provides manna, bread from heaven, to carry them through.  Then today, they can’t find enough water, and God empowers Moses to strike a rock at Mt. Sinai to bring living water that flows from barren stone. 
Wandering in the wilderness might be an overused metaphor for the confusing times of our lives, but it certainly seems to apply right now.  Answers are not coming easily these days.  I’ve sent you two letters in two weeks to explain how we’re working to manage the risk of infection here at church.  That’s not because I think you like getting mail but because the situation is so fluid. 
As of now, these are the most important ways we’re protecting you when you come to church: We’re greeting each other without touching, and it would be smart to keep a six-foot distance as much as possible.  We’ve stopped serving the common cup.  We’ve stopped passing the collection plates and the sign-in folders.  We’re not handling prayer books or hymnals.  We’re sanitizing surfaces more intensely.  We’ve removed the holy water from the font.  We’re serving individually wrapped snacks at coffee hour and serving meals without shared utensils. 
So, I’d like to end this list by saying, “There’s our response plan, and I think we’re good.”  But I have a strong feeling that we aren’t done yet, though I don’t know what this week will bring.  In the past week, just in the small world of The Episcopal Church, we’ve learned of six rectors of large congregations who’ve been diagnosed with coronavirus infection, effectively closing their churches for a time.  And, even more drastic, at least three dioceses – Virginia; Washington, DC; and Lexington in Kentucky – have shut the doors to all their congregations for at least two weeks, closing more than 300 churches.  Plus, as you know, many Kansas City churches, including Church of the Resurrection and Village Presbyterian, are worshiping only online today, and our bishop may move us that way for next Sunday.  Worship online is great, and thank God for it, in this moment.  Yet, it is deeply sad that churches are having to ask people not to come at a time when we’d most want churches open, a time when people are uncertain and afraid.
So, as we’re thinking about what happens next, the guiding principle is this:  We are the church, the Body of Jesus Christ in this place and time; and we will keep being the church, no matter what.  As individuals and as a congregation, we’ll continue to live faithfully even in uncertain times; and we’ll live trusting that God is with us and will bring us through this.  In your day-to-day lives, wherever you are, you’ll continue to love God and love the person in front of you – even when that means staying away from the person in front of you.  As you make your way through this coronavirus wilderness, you can keep going on your Lenten journey, reading your Bible and saying your prayers. 
And, it’s our intention that you’ll be able to “come” to worship, too, even if we can’t all come together to worship in this room.  I know worshiping at home is not ideal.  Just as you miss receiving the Body of Christ when you can’t be here, you miss physically gathering as the Body of Christ, getting to talk with people you love and being energized for this life God gives us Monday through Saturday.  I get that.  But we’re blessed that we can still be the church as we gather virtually.
In fact, we’re starting that on a daily basis, as of tomorrow morning.  Several of you saw our Facebook posts offering the service of Compline over the past couple of nights.  Beginning tomorrow, we’ll offer live prayer on Facebook three times a day.  It’s easy to remember:  8-1-8.  We’ll be on Facebook Live at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m. each day, gathering with you for beautiful prayers from our Anglican tradition.  We’ll use the framework of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families in the Book of Common Prayer, though you won’t need a prayer book to take part.  All you’ll need is your phone or computer and a few minutes out of your day to stop, and breathe, and remember that God is God, no matter what.  And you’ll be able to be part of the experience in real time, too, typing in your prayers in the moments of silence.  Through that brief witness, three times a day, we can pray for ourselves, our friends, our family, and our world, commending our common life in this difficult moment to Jesus’ healing touch.
And then, we have the question of Sunday mornings.  Although our bishop hasn’t stopped in-person worship yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens in the next few days.  And if it does, we will still have worship, and you can still be part of it through the livestream on our website.  It wouldn’t really make sense for us to celebrate Holy Communion if no one’s in the pews.  But, as some of you will remember from an earlier day, we have the beauty of Morning Prayer available to us.  We’ll bring together Dr. Tom and our singers and some blowhard to stand up here and preach.  And worship will happen, because we are the church.  We are God’s people, and we will praise him.
You’ve probably also wondered about classes, meetings, and other gatherings.  That, too, is a fluid situation.  For today, the Satterlee family cancelled Lois’ funeral, which was set for this afternoon.  Tonight, we’re cancelling our Third Sunday offering of Irish Pub Night, sadly.  But our Discovery class and our Sunday-night class, the Way of Love in Lent, will go on because we can offer them on Facebook Live, too.  So, tonight, people can come, and keep their distance; or they can “come” and be with us online.  Visit the St. Andrew’s Facebook page, or watch your feed, at 6 p.m. tonight.
We’re also having to think about major events to come.  It’s way to early to know how the coronavirus situation will look by Easter, but … Easter is four weeks away.  And a week after that, we’re planning to debut our new service at HJ’s, Trailside.  We may need to approach those events differently, so stay tuned as the weeks go on.
Obviously, there’s a lot that’s uncertain right now.  But there’s far more that is certain, now and always.  The living water of God’s love is there for us, even if we have trouble seeing it and touching it ourselves.  Think about the Gospel reading today, this meandering, disjointed conversation Jesus has with the woman at the well. 
You know, for most of their conversation, Jesus and the woman just aren’t connecting.  Actually, they’re not even supposed to be talking to each other.  Men and women who were strangers didn’t engage each other in public.  And in this case, they really shouldn’t have, because Jesus was a Jew and the woman was a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans were supposed to hate each other.  Plus, this woman had no social standing for a conversation with a strange man because she wasn’t married. 
Now, we hear Jesus say this woman has had five husbands and isn’t married to the man she’s with now, and we may think that implies loose morals.  Instead, most likely Jesus was recognizing her as somebody completely on the margin, completely powerless.  In that time and place, only a man could initiate divorce, and the divorced woman was left with virtually nothing financially or socially.  This woman had been through that multiple times and had no standing … but here she is, talking with Jesus, trying to understand why he’s so different, what he means about living water “gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). 
So, she keeps at it.  She hangs in there and doesn’t let her confusion, or the violation of social norms, stop her.  She knows he has power she’s never seen or heard or felt before; and she’s going to keep asking, keep pushing, keep digging until she finds it.  And eventually, she pushes through the confusion and the uncertainty and the fear about “we’ve never done it this way before,” and she taps into that living water.  “I know [the] Messiah is coming,” she says, holding out hope that maybe she’s got it right (John 4:25).  There you go: “I am he,” Jesus says (John 4:26).  The wandering, the digging, the interrogating, the breaking of the rules – it’s all paid off.  And at the end, despite everything, even the Samaritans around her can say, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Sometimes, faithfulness looks very different than we’d expect.  In challenging times – when we’re wandering in the wilderness, when we find ourselves in enemy territory, when we’re afflicted by threatening forces – in challenging times, faithfulness means keeping on when you can’t see where the path leads. 
You know, maybe the coronavirus threat will pass quickly; and in a few weeks, maybe we’ll all look at each other and smile and wonder what all the fuss was about.  Or, maybe not.  But whatever happens this week, and in the weeks ahead, we will be OK, because we are the church.  We are the Body of Christ.  We are God’s people in this place, however life looks in the moment.  And we will keep on the journey even though it’s complicated, even though it’s rough, because we know what awaits us at the end:  Bread from heaven.  Water from the rock.  The Savior of the world, walking among us.  And living water “gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Painting in the Dark

Sermon from March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but I struggle sometimes with the implications of having faith in God.  It’s not that I doubt whether God loves me, or whether Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God for humanity – those ideas rest pretty well in my head and my heart.  Where I have trouble is with the next step: making it real.  If I have faith in God, what am I called to do?  How do I follow faithfully?
We find one answer in the reading this morning from Genesis, one of the most remarkable demonstrations of faith in all of Scripture.  We’re told almost nothing about Abram before this reading, other than his origin story.  He and his extended family were living in Ur of the Chaldees in lower Mesopotamia, present-day southern Iraq.  Abrah’s father, Terah, took Abram and his wife, Sarai, and their nephew, Lot, to go to Canaan, modern-day Israel, though we’re not told why.  But the extended family stopped their journey early and settled in Haran, in upper Mesopotamia, somewhere in northern Iraq or Syria. 
So, his father dies, and Abram apparently is minding his own business when he hears the voice of God calling him to complete the journey his father began.  God tells him to take the family and all their herds and possessions and go … somewhere – “the land that I will show you,” God says (12:1).  God promises Abram land, and worldly success, and descendants – that God will make of Abram “a great nation,” one so important that “in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3).  And then comes the all-important next line, which is simply this:  “So, Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (12:4).  Really?  No questions?  No clarifications?  He just went.  And because of that, and because of Abram later formalizing his covenant, he became for us the paragon of right relationship with God, as Paul explains in the reading today from Romans.  “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (4:3).
I love the Abraham story.  And, I struggle with it – because it might imply that if we really have true faith, then the directions for our actions are crystal are clear.  For me, at least, discerning what to do with our faith is a lot more complicated than that.  I think it’s like raising kids.  My mother has a great metaphor for raising kids, something that’s stuck with me for years.  She says, “Raising kids is like painting in the dark.”  You do the best you can; but in the moment, you really can’t see what the outcome is going to be.
Well, I do think God gives us some guidance in how to paint in the dark, how to follow the calls we hear faithfully.  For me, three suggestions, or maybe three “best practices,” come to mind, and I think we can see each of them playing out in our church family’s life right now.
Here’s the first best practice for following God faithfully:  Listen together.  Maybe, like Abram, some people get a direct order from the Almighty that’s so clear, there’s no need for questions.  But for most of us, and especially when the stakes are high, I think we do best when we take the risk to share our calls with each other and listen with more than two ears. 
There’s a great example of that happening among us here.  At this moment, we have four people from our congregation who are following a call toward ordination as deacons or priests – Rita Kendagor, Jean Long, Ryan Zavacky, and Adam James – and others are at an earlier stage in the listening process.  I think that’s amazing.  It’s a testimony to these individuals’ faithfulness in responding to God’s claim on their lives – and, it’s a testimony to the power of having others walking with you as you listen to discern what God’s calling you into.  They’ve each talked with me, or Fr. Jeff, or Mtr. Anne, or Deacon Bruce – or, more likely, all of us.  And they’ve each spent hours talking and listening with the members of our Discernment Commission, a group of powerfully faithful souls committed to helping others hear God’s call.  That community of listening hearts is essential, because I think when God asks something significant of us, God comes to us in the people around us, helping us hear what the next step should be.  So, when you’re trying to act faithfully, when you’re trying to paint in the dark, find other faithful folks; and listen to God, together.
Here’s another best practice, I think:  Act first in love.  As our presiding bishop, Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”  And often, that means acting in ways that are going to cost us something.  We follow a God who came among us, as the Gospel reading today says, ready to “be lifted up” on a cross in order to lift all of us up into eternal life (John 3:14).  So, we shouldn’t be surprised that following that model of love is costly.
This morning, we’re experiencing an example of that kind of faithful action, of giving something up for the sake of others.  As you all know, our nation and our world are trying to manage the risks of infection with coronavirus as new cases appear in new places daily.  We know we can take important steps to keep ourselves and others safe, things like washing hands well and frequently, staying home when we’re sick, and coughing into tissues, not our hands.  But here in a church community, we have to discern how to act faithfully given the reality that some significant parts of our common life revolve around physical intimacy.  We hug a lot here.  We shake hands a lot here.  And every week, we share this deeply intimate meal of Holy Communion, where the sacramental mystery involves receiving God’s own self in our own hands, taking Jesus’ body into our bodies, and all from a common plate and cup. 
There’s always some risk of infection in that, despite the steps we take to use hand sanitizer before Communion, and to wipe the chalice carefully – and, for you, trying not to dip your fingers in the wine when you intinct.  So, we’ve had to discern how to act first in love as we respond to the risk of coronavirus infection.  We’ve decided – for now – to stop touching each other in the Peace and other greetings, to stop passing the collection plates, and to stop serving the consecrated wine during Communion.  I particularly don’t like that last one; and I’m guessing for many of you, it will be upsetting not to receive the cup of salvation.  But we’re taking this step in order to act first in love.  Here’s what I mean:  Honestly, many of us are at pretty low risk of infection.  But many of us – because of age or compromised immune status – many of us are at higher risk.  And we need to protect those at risk, even if it means giving something up.  That’s the loving action to take.
OK, here’s the third best practice for following God’s call faithfully, the third tip for how to paint in the dark:  Take the step.  Listening together is essential, and choosing the path of sacrificial love is key.  And then, we have to go, even though we can’t quite see where we’re going.  “You must be born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus.  What?  “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks. (John 3:3,9)  I’m not sure how to do that, or where it will take me, if I step out and follow you, Nicodemus is thinking.  I’m a religious leader, and it might cost me a lot to follow this rebel who turns over tables in the Temple and claims to come directly from God.  I get it, Jesus tells him.  Take the step anyway.
If you want to see that kind of faith in action, you can look right across the street.  Six weeks from today, we’ll kick off a new worship opportunity at HJ’s called “Trailside,” a chance for people who probably wouldn’t be here otherwise to find their path with God.  The service there will start at 10:45 a.m., and the worship will involve most of the same things that happen in worship here: praising God in song, reading the Bible, hearing a sermon or a kids’ sermon, proclaiming our ancient faith, praying for ourselves and our world, and sharing Holy Communion.  But the music will be more accessible and familiar to modern ears, with keyboard and guitar rather than organ.  And the person leading all this won’t be an ordained person, at least not yet.  Jean Long, our minister for children, youth, young adults, and families – one of the four people I mentioned on the path to ordination – she’ll be the worship leader.  And the preacher here at 10:15 will go across the street after the sermon to preach at Trailside … with just notes, not a text, trusting the Spirit to blow hard enough to keep him from falling on his face.  
Now, if you know me at all, you can probably figure this is not exactly in my comfort zone.  Dr. Tom has done worship like this in several places, thank God.  But not me.  And certainly not Jean Long.  And not the people who will be serving as hosts for this experience that we’ve never done before.  We’ve heard a clear call, that now’s the time to create a new way to draw people into the loving family that is St. Andrew’s, to open a new door in a new facility into a new experience of praise and refreshment and thanksgiving.  Everything tells me the time is right … but … Jesus, how can these things be?  I get it, Jesus says.  Take the step anyway.
The direction God asks us to take is not always clear.  As Jesus tells Nicodemus, God’s call is like the wind: powerfully present but invisible, and impossible for us to control.  We don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, any more than we can see the future that lies ahead for us, any more than we can see the picture we’re painting in the dark.  But, like Abram, we go ahead and take the next step.  We listen together, we choose the path of love, and we go.  We go without guarantees that each step is right.  But we go with the guarantee that the purpose is right, because the purpose is God’s and not our own.  And we go with the guarantee that what awaits us at the end of the journey is right and a good and joyful thing– in fact the very best thing: God’s embrace and God’s empowerment, forever.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  With that as our promise, we can rest assured that, if the steps we take are faithful, the trail will take us there.