The great potluck: Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus said: They need not go away: you give them something to eat.

feeding5thousandThe kingdom of heaven is also like this: On a wide, sandy beach, a crowd of people are hungry for healing and hungry for food. A famous teacher and healer is in the midst of the crowd.

In the evening his students surround him and say: Teacher, send all these people back to the city where they can get something to eat.

The teacher replies: You can feed them right here.

But we barely have enough food for ourselves! (Sounds like some vestries I’ve worked with in the past—not here—when discussing funding outreach projects.)

The teacher takes what bread they have, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it back to them. There is enough for them to share with thousands of people, and no one goes hungry. The kingdom of God is like this.

The miraculous transformation we typically focus on in this story is the transformation of the loaves and fishes, from a small amount of food into an unbelievable amount of food. It has been said that what actually happened was that everyone pitched in the little bit they had, to transform crumbs into a generous meal. A big huge potluck of leftovers. Everyone in the story is transformed by their own simple acts of generosity.

Jesus is not so much performing a miracle as modeling for us God’s abundance that happens every time we share. Jesus does not create bread out of thin air, he takes what has been offered to him and transforms it into more than enough for everyone.

Then there is the transformation of the disciples. In the beginning they are members of Jesus’ inner circle, gathering around him and saying “it’s getting late—send all of this riff-raff away.” I’m guessing we’ve all been in situations where we don’t like a crowd. This scene reminds me, sadly, of so many small churches I know, whose words say they want to grow, but they don’t want their church to grow so much that everyone doesn’t know each other’s name or, heaven forbid, that someone else sits in their seat.

loavesJesus is having none of it, and says: “You give them something to eat.” “We don’t have enough,” they say. “Give it to me,” Jesus says. I picture him rolling his eyes and muttering: “Do I have to do everything?” He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples, so that it is indeed they, not he, who do the feeding.

With the bread Jesus has blessed, the disciples turn outward. They are no longer the inner circle around Jesus, but are sent out to do the work of the kingdom. They are transformed from passive followers to ministers of the gospel.

How do we get transformed from being passive followers of Jesus into ministers of the Gospel? Sometimes our personal attachment to familiar community—a nearly universal human trait, I think—gets in the way of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Our baptism is our commission to do kingdom work. The five baptismal promises are our “instruction manual” for the Christian life, if we ever need a refresher about doing the work of the kingdom.

But what about our own experience? Think about a time when you have been taken out of yourself, beyond your own understanding of your Christian identity? Jeanne has a story about driving around Portland in the snow with a pot of homemade soup, looking for someone to give it to, and how that experience has formed and shaped her sense of connection with the needs of the world. I remember years ago, long before going to seminary, talking with a rather difficult, unhappy woman on the phone and saying—you know, the way we do—“I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She said “I want you to pray for me right now, out loud!” That was not what I expected to hear, and it was humbling and good. I changed the way I looked at being an emissary of Jesus. James told me about the first preacher he consistently listened to in college, whose words made him feel that he was not doing enough to further the kingdom of God. The preacher pushed him, every week, to go out and connect with the world in deeper ways.

I came across a blog post recently about body image and fitness (because I read that stuff in my spare time J) and the refrain of the post was “You are enough.” We all love to hear this, right? You are enough. And we are. But in this gospel, I think Jesus is saying something different. I think Jesus is saying “It is not enough for you, my inner circle of faithful, beloved disciples, to sit at my feet and be nurtured by me in the holy intimacy you never seem to get enough of. Don’t you get that this is not what this is about? You give them something to eat.”

This conversation is—I hope—a defining moment in the life of each of the disciples. It is also a defining moment in the life of their community, a moment when together they saw their identity as a community in a new way. Some of us had that experience last week when we moved outside for Gospel on the Grass. Because of Linda’s very fine reflection that invited our reflections on the Kingdom of God, some of us began to imagine our calling as a community not just to discover the kingdom around us, but to be the Kingdom of God.

mosaicToday’s gospel story is a story about the Kingdom of God unfolding before the disciples’ very eyes, unfolding before our eyes, and it is also a Eucharistic story. The bread that Jesus shares with his disciples, and that they then share with thousands, becomes this amazing abundance because it is blessed (a holy word for given thanks for), broken, and shared. Jesus doesn’t just give them something to eat, he gives thanks for gathered crumbs, breaks loaves into pieces, and gives them to the disciples, commissioning them to become themselves givers. Small, simple gifts like loaves and fishes turn into extravagant abundance.

Just as scarcity becomes abundance for the disciples in this morning’s gospel, it can become abundance for us. Are we willing to offer to God the only thing we have left? Sometimes this means giving up the crumbs of our crowded days, our broken relationships, or our whole lives. Are we willing to give thanks for those gifts, break them open, and share them? This is what it means to live Eucharistically: to allow our broken selves to be a blessing to others.

As we pray together, and as we share holy food and drink in this intimacy of this holy table, I hope you’ll pray and come to the table with these questions: who needs something to eat? What broken thing can I share with them?

A little slice of earth

Let both grow together until the harvest.

What is your favorite kind of weed? I know there are some that are pretty—I love sweet peas, the wild pink ones that have another name that sounds far more annoying than “sweet pea”…but I must say my favorite weeds are the ones that are easiest to pull. Ralph Waldo Emerson described weeds as plants “whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” We could probably do well to think of some people that way.

wheatToday’s parable is often called “the wheat and the tares.” The tare, known as “false wheat” or “bearded darnel,” sounds like an awful plant. Its roots surround the roots of good plants, sucking out water and nutrients. It is impossible to weed out the tares without prematurely uprooting the wheat. The plant looks a lot like wheat until you try to eat the seeds, which are poisonous. It has been described as the botanical equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

This co-mingling of good and bad, the work of God and the work of God’s enemies, is part of our reality.

We experience this reality of good and evil coexisting even within our own selves. Think of it as the good angel whispering in one ear and the bad angel whispering in the other, arguing about some discipline we are trying to keep or some money we are trying to save or who knows what else. Think of how we distract ourselves from being the hands and heart of Jesus in the world by spending hours on twitter, Facebook. (Not that social media doesn’t have its redeeming virtues, mind you J.) All of us, I’m sure, have had moments when we can relate to St. Paul when he says: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

If we readily admit that we all experience inner conflicts, hidden weeds among the wheat of our best intentions, it should be easy to take that one step further and acknowledge that in any community of Christians, there are individuals who may or may not be living out their best identity as followers of Jesus. Sometimes this surprises us. Sometimes we get hurt.

In the quest for security and self-preservation, Christian institutions, such as churches and dioceses, can lose sight of their Christian identity and purpose as easily as individuals can.

We are a mixed bag. St. Augustine, who knew little about inner conflict, coined the phrase corpus permixtum. Mixed body. We are a mixed body. The times when people get the most hurt are when there is an expectation that life in their parish, or their neighborhood, or even their country, is meant to be a little slice of heaven on earth. Actually, it’s a little slice of earth, on earth. I am in no way excusing behavior that is immoral or illegal, perpetrated in the church or out of the church by clergy or anyone else. But, like the field full of wheat and weeds, our community and our world is made up of people motivated by love and people motivated by greed and fear.

Where is justice in this mixed bag of human community? Are we simply to tolerate a world filled with good and evil, tragedy and joy, abundance and loss? The answer is a good Anglican answer: yes, and no.

At the end of the parable, the reapers sort the wheat from the weeds and burn the weeds. Jesus explains that the good seed are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the evil one, and that all evildoers will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. While this might not sound like the cheeriest of Good News, I believe it is intended as a reassuring reminder that God is in charge. We may not like some of the ways Jesus teaches about the end of the age, but the point is that we are not the ones who decide who is good or who is bad, who is in or who is out.

This end-of-the-age sorting reminds us that it is not up to us to do the rooting out and destruction of evil. We need only to look at the world around us, this very week, to see how futile, horrifying even, it is when humans take God’s matters into their own hands. Our friend Kelvin Holdsworth from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, posted in Facebook that we should all sing a lament in our services this morning, for Gaza, for the passengers of Malaysian Air flight 87, and for all those whose lives and loves depend upon dangerous border crossings.

But we should not read this gospel as saying that we need do nothing about the injustice and evil that surrounds us. If we are to sing, our song—like our lives—must bear witness to the Kingdom of God that is just within our reach. While weeds will always be weeds, people are always capable of being transformed by love. Right now, weeds or no weeds, we must live as children of the kingdom. When you listen to all the bad news, or when your yourself experience the weeds in your own heart or your own community, look around for who is stepping out to love, to forgive, to reconcile. These are children of the kingdom. The price, on which I pray we will always keep our eyes, is to be won by loving our enemies, welcoming strangers, and seeking and offering forgiveness. If we are to sing in response to this gospel and the world we live in, our song might be “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” When we live as witnesses to the Kingdom, our slice of earth becomes a slice of heaven.

Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part II

In the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the title character is having a bad day. Everything goes wrong. He gets carsick on the way to school. His teacher likes another kid’s picture better than his. She says he sings too loud. The elevator door at the dentist’s office closes on his foot.

The book offers an important lesson that bad things happen, that we all have bad days (and some terrible very bad days), and that we cannot always make everything better or easier, especially for those we love. Sometimes, the best we can do is say to someone “you’re having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Or say, like Alexander’s mother, who is very wise, “some days are like that.”

blake's_abraham_isaacLast week’s sermon was titled: Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One. Unlike last week’s reading from Genesis, which I chose to preach on, ignoring almost entirely a challenging gospel text, these week’s Old Testament reading is one we cannot choose to preach on or not. The story of Abraham and Isaac demands our attention.

Years before I became a priest I remember saying to my spiritual director: “I hate that story and if I ever get a chance to preach on it, all I’m going to do is stand there and say: ‘This is horrible! I hate this!'”

But what if there is something we should learn from this passage? We won’t learn anything if we just decide it’s awful and we hate it. The questions that abound when we hear about “The Binding of Isaac” are the hardest ones to answer: What kind of God would do such a thing? Why would God put Abraham to the test? How could Abraham obey? Do I really want a God like this?

Perhaps this is a story that simply teaches us that God makes no sense. But it does make sense if we remember that faith—especially the faith of Abraham, early in the life of God’s relationship to God’s people—is a risky business.

There are several things to reflect on in this story of Abraham and Isaac, which is really a story of Abraham and God.

One thing is the historical context. This story begins with the words “After these things, God tested Abraham….” After these things is a tiny phrase that encompasses the original disobedience in the garden of Eden, which God may have interpreted as betrayal, the first murder by Cain of Abel, the escalation of world-wide violence that occasioned the flood, and the Tower of Babel. Ellen Davis, a wonderful Old Testament scholar to whom I owe much of what I’m about to say, says that “the first eleven chapters of Genesis…is predominantly a story of steady alienation from God and human rejection of God.”

One could say that God is trying a new strategy, focusing on one relationship with one man and his descendants, creating a great nation, a covenant community to receive the blessing that God is all about. So this is a story about the solidifying of that blessing-giving relationship. Like I said, faith is a risky business. And it is a give-and-take business. Yes, God is always there. But our experience of God is determined by how we receive that presence.

So the first thing I want to is that this story must be read in the context of God’s whole relationship with humanity that has contributed to his relationship to Abraham. The second thing I want to say is that it is a story not about obedience, but about trust. If it is a story about obedience alone, then it is a scary story about abuse of power. If it is about trust, then it is a story about a relationship that will last to eternity.

abraham-and-isaac_modernAbraham and God’s relationship got off to a rocky start. Abraham didn’t always trust God the way he does in today’s story. But by the time we get to today, Abraham never wavers. He does everything God tells him to do. If you remember my sermon from last week, you remember the code phrase which is a clue to Abraham’s unswerving faith. Anyone remember? Abraham rose early in the morning…. Abraham trusts God. His response is not blind obedience, but active faith. And faith is a risky business.

Think about other kinds of covenanted relationships. Baptism is one. We make a covenant with God and with a community, and we promise to act as Jesus in the world. When asked if we will do these things, we say I will, with God’s help. We will. Not we will try, not we will think about whether it makes sense, but we will act. Marriage is another kind of covenanted relationship. Marriage is not about proving yourself to the other person, but about being together through thick and thin, even when one’s beloved does hurtful, incomprehensible things. Loving relationships—between spouses, parents and children, good friends—are not based upon what we think about the other person, but about the trust we have for one another. Abraham and God have this kind of trust. It is as if—and again, I credit Ellen Davis for this thought—God and Abraham have a long and complicated marriage. Isaac, the miracle child, is their offspring, the bearer of Abraham’s genes and God’s promise. Therefore, Abraham can forgive God, Isaac can forgive Abraham, and the descendants of Abraham and Isaac will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.

There is no tidy way to end a sermon on this reading. Or if there is, I don’t know what it is. I want to leave you instead with an image. Or several images. If you search google for images of this passage, through the ages, almost all of them share several common features. Abraham has the knife in his hand, and Isaac is looking up at him with curiosity, almost as a detached observer. Perhaps because Isaac has deep faith in Abraham. In some of the paintings, we see the ram in the thicket. But Abraham is always looking up, as if he, like the plsamist in Psalm 121, knows from whence his help is to come. He may not know for sure what is going to happen, but he is relying upon God to show him.

I hope that God will never set before us the task given to Abraham. But I pray that we might all have Abraham’s faith.

Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One

In our church calendar, this Sunday marks our return to what is often called “Ordinary Time.” I don’t think there’s anything ordinary about gathering to read scripture, sing praises, and share bread and wine in the name of Jesus, so I prefer to call this season by its proper name: The Season After Pentecost. Also know, at least in my mind, as The Long Green Season.

churchyearWhen we move into this Long Green Season, our schedule of readings shifts. We no longer hear readings that point toward themes of Advent or Christmas—the Incarnation cycle—or Lent and Easter—the Paschal cycle—but return to the Sunday lectionary for this season after Pentecost.

If you follow the Sunday lectionary, or if you are a reader and have ever tried to find your reading for the day, you know that in this long, green season you have some choices for the Old Testament readings, Track One or Track Two. This drives the altar guild nuts and I don’t blame them! Does anyone know the difference between Track 1 and Track 2?

This year, and for the next three years, we’ll be on Track 1. So on this Sunday, we enter into the Book of Genesis, already in progress. We’ll be in Genesis through the middle of August. In Track 1, the Old Testament readings tend to be longer, and we get to hear stories we wouldn’t otherwise hear on a Sunday (and didn’t hear, until the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary by the Episcopal Church in 2006).

I’m titling this sermon: Abraham and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Part One. Anyone remember that children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? It was written in 1972 by Judith Viorst, who is also a novelist and a psychotherapist. It was a classic in our house and is one of my very favorite children’s books.

Everything is going wrong for Alexander. He falls asleep with gum in his mouth and wakes up with gum in his hair. His brothers get the prizes in the cereal boxes. His mother forgets to pack dessert in his lunch. He went to the dentist and had multiple cavities. And on and on.

hagarAbraham’s problems are far more significant than Alexander’s. His wife, Sarah, in spite of the miracle of bearing a son, Isaac, in her old age, is jealous of the servant girl Hagar. Hagar had earlier borne a son to Abraham, in case no other offspring would be forthcoming. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is several years older than Isaac, but the two boys play together. This is a constant reminder to Sarah of her old age, painful years of infertility, and her desire for Isaac to be the sole heir of Abraham’s fortunes, which are considerable.

Abraham loves the two boys equally. Ishmael is his son as much as Isaac. Ishmael is considered to be the forebear of the Arab nations and the spiritual ancestor of Islam—it is from this morning’s story that we get the phrase “Abrahamic religion.”

Sarah wants Hagar and her boy to be cast out, and the scripture tells us that this is distressing to Abraham on account of his son. Can you imagine? Those of you with experience with blended families—or family of any kind, really—know how distressing it can be to be the one responsible for holding it all together.

God reassures Abraham that he doesn’t have to be the one to hold it all together. In God’s scheme of things, it is all together, even as Hagar and her son are sent away. God will continue to care for them.

The scripture goes on to tell us that Abraham “rose early in the morning.” This is a code phrase in the Hebrew Bible. Usually when someone rises early in the morning, it is an act of faithful obedience. This is a poignant scene, heart-breaking and difficult to imagine. Abraham gives Hagar food and water for a few days’ journey and sends her away to wander about in the wilderness.

What are we to make of this story? God saves Hagar—God hears her cries of despair and the suffering of her son. Like the psalms, Hagar cries out to God, God hears her and Ishmael, like Isaac, becomes the father of a great nation. The story reminds us that God is not only with God’s chosen people, but with exiles in the wilderness.

Who are the Hagars in the world around us? How will we respond?

Phyllis Trible, in her book Texts of Terror about the tragic experiences of many women in the bible, writes:

All sorts of rejected women find their stories in [Hagar]. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structure, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

This story has obvious implications to our lives as Christians; it is one of the foundational stories that would have influenced Jesus’ teachings about God’s love for the foreigner and the outcast. And—even though there are no intentional thematic connections between the Old Testament readings and the gospel—this story has lessons for us about how we follow Jesus and whom we consider family. The hard sayings about family in today’s gospel, about families divided, challenges our notions of family, and loyalty, just as Abraham is challenged. We are to look outward, beyond our family and beyond our familiars, to find Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness and to celebrate God’s saving action in their lives, as in ours.

Home alone: restoring the kingdom

O Lord, you have made us but a little lower than the angels.

Like so many scripture stories about Jesus, the scene from today’s reading from the Book of Acts unfolds with a dream-like quality as the writer replays for us the Ascension moment. Jesus has been with his followers for forty days, give or take, after the resurrection, appearing to small groups of disciples in equally dream-like scenes.

Now Jesus is again with his gathered disciples, and they want to know: Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Not exactly,” Jesus answers, and then says: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth. In other words, with the mysterious arrival of this thing Jesus calls the Holy Spirit, it will be up to them, the disciples, to restore the Kingdom and to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Ascension2Without further ado, Jesus levitates, head first, into the sky. If you do any kind of search of images for “Ascension” you’ll see hundreds of paintings of Jesus up in the air and a bunch of people looking up at him with utter bewilderment as he disappears into the clouds.

Then, the Book of Acts tells us, “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

What does this remind you of? Easter morning, right? Then we encountered several different men robed in dazzling white and asking: Mary, why are you weeping? He is not here. What are you looking for?

What’s different, this time around? The disciples understand a little more than they did. They have sorted out a little more about what resurrection means. But this ascending thing….they are astonished and bewildered.

Let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples on the ground, looking up. Jesus has left us. We’re home alone. Eventually we stop looking up and look at one another instead.

What do we do now?

This is the question I always ask at funerals. When we have lost someone we love, or heard about the tragic death of someone we didn’t even know, it is natural to ask: Why did this happen? How could God let this happen? But the real question that will help us in our grief, in our bewilderment, is what do we do now? How do we live our lives in the absence of this person?

What we do now is we live our lives honoring—by imitating—the qualities in the absent one that made him or her unique.

So what do we honor in Jesus? How do we change the way we live our lives in order to go about the business of honoring what made Jesus special?

Ascension reminds us—as if we ever had any doubt—that Jesus is not like us. Or rather, he is and he isn’t. Fully human and, as the old version of the creed says: very God of very God. As we follow the Jesus story from Advent to this moment and beyond, we are continually invited into Jesus’ humanity and into his divinity.

The fourth-century theologian St. Athanasius famously said: “God became human that we might become divine.”

O Lord, you have made us a little lower than the angels.

How do we honor Jesus, in Jesus’ absence?

Jesus held the world lightly. He proclaimed God’s love to outcasts and sinners by including them, healing them. He took every opportunity he could do eat and drink with his disciples, friends, strangers, and enemies. He never stopped talking about his purpose on earth, to bring healing and reconciliation.

When we do these things in Jesus’ name, on his behalf, we are restoring the Kingdom of Israel, not the way the disciples think, not in the political realm but in the human-becoming-divine realm.

How does that happen around here?

Lots of ways. We can to point to the Village Support Network, a wonderful effort of New City Initiative, for which we have a new team beginning training this afternoon. Or Rahab’s Sisters, which has a St. David’s team providing hospitality to marginalized women on 82nd Avenue whenever there’s a fifth Friday. Or to the many life-changing things that happen in this building around music, and the development of small children. Or to the behind-the-scenes support for worship, like altar guild and making coffee. All of these things are essential pieces of what it means to follow Jesus. Especially making coffee.

But proclaiming the good news and being Christ’s witnesses does not only happen in church. If we think that’s the only place it happens, we will always be disappointed. Being Christ’s witnesses to the end of the earth and restoring the Kingdom God intends for us is not only about church ministries or volunteering. It is about how we live our lives. How we interact with our families, with people we work with, and with people we don’t even know. Next Sunday is a baptismal day when we renew our own baptismal covenant. The baptismal promises are about how we live every day of our lives. That is what we are called to do when we are “home alone” in this world God loves, the world God sent Jesus to inhabit with us.

Being Jesus’ witnesses to the end of the earth is not about inviting people to church. Often when we talk about evangelism, we make that mistake. We tell people about the great fellowship at our church, the fabulous coffee, the wonderful music. It’s all true. But how often do we talk about how our lives have been changed by God? Yes, I’m talking about testimony. We all have one, although as Episcopalians sometimes I think we’d rather die than share it. But according to Jesus, share it we must.

Here’s mine:

I was a troubled adolescent and young adult, with a lot of problems, particularly with addiction to almost anything, but mostly alcohol. God’s grace intervened; looking back, it was as if I was plucked from the jaws of death, but it was probably far less dramatic and more mysterious. When I stumbled into a church for the first time at the age of 24, it was easy for me to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and what that meant for us. I loved how the death-and-resurrection story was retold every Sunday in the Eucharist. God saved my life and Jesus taught me how to live in the world. If God can do that for someone as broken and screwed up as me, God can do that for anyone.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

O Lord, you have made us a little lower than the angels. Strengthen your people, Holy One, that in your Son Jesus we might celebrate our humanity and our divinity, and spread the Good News of your Kingdom to the ends of the earth.

Life after Jesus

Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Jesus in all his redeeming work..

I am a sucker for transformation.

I’m not talking just about change. We all know that some of us like change and many of us don’t. There are multiple light-bulb jokes about change. How many therapists does it take? Just one, but the light bulb needs to really want to change. How many Anglo-Catholics does it take? Change???? Did you say change??

Change is what you do to light bulbs or to the living room furniture. Change is getting a new sign in front of the church or changing our altar frontal from purple to white or, as we will on Pentecost, to red. Transformation is something different. Transformation is Easter. Transformation is when someone left for dead comes back to life, or when someone living life as though he wants to die, changes course and becomes someone who wants to live. Transformation is what happens to a garden from one season to another.

Transformation is what happens to Peter after the resurrection.

Remember way back in Epiphany when someone said about Jesus: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” I always imagine a scene in the Book of Acts where people listening to Peter are saying “is this not Simon Peter, the dumb fisherman who never really understood what Jesus was talking about? The one who denied Christ? The one who said: ‘Lord, how ‘bout we eat and send the others away to get food?”

That Peter. But now after Easter, he’s the leader. He is eloquent in his speech, commanding even. He presides over amazing growth in the early church, not just numerical growth—although 3000 baptisms in one place is mighty impressive—but also growth in the power of the Spirit.

The Book of Acts is all about the church experiencing transformation of its own. Acts contains story after story that I commend to all of you, of what it means to be church: how leaders are chosen, how conflicting traditions are reconciled, how diverse groups are incorporated into the faith community, even how finances are managed and apportioned. If you’re looking for a satisfying chunk of scripture to read during this season of transition from Easter to Pentecost, you could do worse than read Acts from beginning to end.

road-to-emmausThe story of the disciples along the road to Emmaus is this same story of transformation in microcosm. Just as the Book of Acts is the story of the whole church figuring out what it means to be a community of Jesus-followers when Jesus is no longer around to follow, so the little micro-community of Jesus-followers on the road is trying to figure out the same thing.

I imagine they are wondering: How could God let this happen? What is going to happen next? What will we do without Jesus? Who’s in charge now?

They answer these questions by telling, over and over again, stories of when Jesus was with them, and what happened, just as Peter does throughout the first chapters from Acts. We thought he was the one to redeem Israel. Some women found the tomb empty. We are trying to sort out what that might mean.

And they answer their questions by listening to stories from the stranger, stories from their shared tradition, just as we listen to stories every Sunday from our shared tradition. But it is not from scripture alone that the travelers encounter Jesus, just as it is not by scripture alone that we encounter Jesus.

They encounter Jesus by welcoming the stranger, extending themselves to him when they say “stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” Now, we all know this is not the moment when the disciples recognize Jesus once and for all, but I believe that it is in that moment, when Luke tells us that they urged him strongly, that they become leaders, rather than dazed followers. Even if they didn’t know it, they had an impulse to community, a sense that in order for them to continue in their journey, they needed to incorporate the stranger. They needed to be the ones to invite, the ones to offer. They did not wait for a Jesus stand-in, a priest or a deacon, perhaps, to say: “follow me,” but themselves said: come with us. Join us. The encounter with Jesus is in this invitation.

It is this invitation that leads us, of course, to the climax of this much-loved story. When he was at table with them, doing those things that we will do here at this table in a few minutes—taking, blessing, breaking and sharing—they recognize the stranger as the one who calls them friends.

***

I had a conversation with our Senior Warden a while back in which she talked about what she loves most about being a Eucharistic minister. (I would have told this story about an anonymous person except that you can read about her saying it in the current issue of our diocesan magazine.) She said it was her favorite thing to do in church because it is in sharing the wine at the altar that she realizes, over and over again, the centrality of the Eucharist to all of our life and work. When she says “the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation,” she has an urge to say to people: “this is it. This!”

This, this bread and wine, are of course themselves objects of transformation. The bread is still bread; the wine is still wine, grain and fruit of the earth transformed through yeast and fermentation, and then transformed still further, through prayer and community, into the source of recognition, new hope, and the power of the Spirit to transform us.

At times, the Eucharist is as mysterious to me as the stranger on the road was to the bereft disciples. And yet, when they recognized Jesus, it was as if they knew it all along. This is how this simple symbolic meal is for us. It is a mystery, and yet. This is it. This.

A Both/And Easter People

Jeanne Kaliszewski preached this sermon with us for the second Sunday of the Easter season.

I am not someone for whom faith has come easily. Sometimes faith feels like a slippery thing, like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands; you see it glinting, darting in a sunlit pool, and it slips through your fingers just as they close around it.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from the father who brings his child to Jesus to be healed. When Jesus tells him all things are possible through faith, he cries out “I believe, help my unbelief”.

So that kind of makes Thomas my favorite disciple. In fact, when I took the Buzzfeed quiz “Which Disciple are you?” I actually got Thomas, between taking the “Which Downton Abbey character are you?” quiz (Lady Mary), “What kind of dog are you?” quiz (Great Dane), and “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” (Tyrion).

Thomas is a sceptic, a realist, a pragmatist, and yes, a doubter.

But this view of Thomas is one-dimensional. Thomas is also disciple, a first follower of Christ, a gospel writer. Although we do not have much detail about Thomas, about his life and the sacrifices he must have made to follow Jesus, like all Jesus’ early followers he must have abandoned much to follow this new and radical teacher. In the words of Sara in her sermon a few weeks ago, Thomas was “both/and”. He was both a faithful disciple and a sceptic. He was both a believer and a doubter.

And make no mistake, what Thomas was being asked to believe by the other disciples that first day after Jesus’ crucifixion was, simply, unimaginable. Despite some veiled comments by Jesus here and there during his life and ministry, resurrection was not what the disciples expected or even hoped for. There was no precedence for this, no anticipation on the part of the disciples. That is why Mary does not recognize Jesus and mistakes him for a gardener, that is why Thomas is incredulous.

This was resurrection, true and corporeal. In our “spiritual not religious” age resurrection has become a metaphor of sorts, a stand-in for life after death or for returning to the fabric of the universe. That is not what is going on in this gospel, this is the real Jesus in his actual body, raised from the dead.

The painting by Caravaggio “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” illustrates the visceral physical presence that is Jesus in this gospel. (Go ahead, look it up on your smartphone if you like) He is guiding Thomas’ hand to the wounds in his side, Thomas looks stunned and confused, staring as his finger enters the hole in Jesus’ side.

Despite Thomas’ doubt, in fact because of Thomas’ doubt, Jesus seeks him out. Jesus appears to him, returns to the house of the disciples in order to help his unbelief. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his still fresh, still raw wounds.

Despite his doubts, because of his doubts, Thomas’ profession of faith “My Lord and my God” is all the more profound.

In Surprised by Hope, historian and theologian N.T. Wright describes the scene in today’s gospel: “Thomas, like a good historian, wants to see and touch. Jesus presents himself to his sight and invites him to touch, but Thomas doesn’t. He transcends the type of knowing he had intended to use and passes into a higher and richer one”.

In the Easter Oratorio composed by Paul Spicer and written by Tom Wright Thomas’ new state of mind, his faith, is rendered beautifully:

“The sea has parted. Pharoah’s hosts-
Despair and doubt, and fear, and pride-
No longer frighten us. We just
Cross over to the other side.
The heaven bows down. With wounded hands
Our exiled God, our Lord of shame
Before us, living, breathing, stands;
The Word is near, and calls our name.
New knowing for the doubting mind,
New seeing out of blindness grows;
New trusting may the sceptic find
New hope through that which faith now knows.

There was a time when my faith felt like a fragile thing. I would hear Neal de Grasse Tyson or Christopher Hitchens on the radio and I would hurry to turn it off, afraid my belief could not withstand the questions they posed, afraid of the seeds of doubt that their learnedness and self-assurance would plant. But by working through those doubts, within these doubts, I find something richer. The faith I found on the other side of my questioning was more complete, more satisfying.

Thomas is brought to faith, to a profound and enduring faith, through sight and touch. Unlike Thomas, we do not have the body of the risen Christ before us, but like Thomas we can use our senses to find Christ here and now.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” “Reach out your hand and put it in my side”. Although Jesus does not stand before us, we can still reach out our hand and put it into his side, reach into him and feel.

Where do you see Christ? Where do you feel him? I put my hand into Jesus’ side in the Eucharist, in the bread still warm from the oven and the hands of the priest, in the wine’s exploding flavor as I take a sip. I put my hand into Jesus’ side as I sing “Oh sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble” and when I stand up here before all of you. I put my hand into Jesus’ side when I attend book group with my friends from JOIN. I put my hand into Jesus’ side when I see the smile of my children, hear the laugh of my husband, feel the hug of my mother.

In her memoir of faith Easter Everywhere Darcy Steinke observes: “Since I was a teenager I’ve lived in a world mostly devoid of divinity. But now I see the sacred includes not just churches but hospitals, highways, costume jewelry, garbage dumps, libraries, the cruising area of public parks. Also pet stores, subway platforms, Ferris wheels, and rain storms”.

Like Thomas, we are asked to believe in the risen Christ and, like Thomas, we often respond with bafflement, disbelief, and doubt. And like Thomas we can be “both/and” Easter people, we can have both faith and doubt. God does not want us to abandon our intellect, our questions. But, as Thomas found, as the philosopher Wittgenstein notes, “It is love that believes the resurrection”.

God does not ask us to abandon our doubt, to stuff it down inside us and ignore it. We must walk through our doubt, extend our hands through the haze of disbelief and into the side of Jesus.