May 17, 2020

Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year A

 

You'll find a video of the entire service at

https://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/576504206333329/

 

If you'd like to follow along, click for the Service Booklethttps://www.facebook.com/StStephensSLO/videos/576504206333329/and Hymns & Psalter

 

 

2020 May17_Berkeley

 

Sixth Sunday of Easter - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley Johnson

 

The last time I preached, at the end of March, we were just in the beginning stages of the pandemic and lockdown here in SLO. I expressed some hope, at the end of my sermon, because I am a person of faith, and because I truly believe, in my heart, that no matter what transpires, we’re going to be ok.

 

So isn’t it interesting, today, that the lesson from First Peter includes this instruction: “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

 

Those of you who have heard me preach before know I normally focus on the Gospel; but today, all the readings are competing for my attention, so I will use the Gospel and this lesson from First Peter to build the foundation of hope that will get us to the first reading from Acts, which feels like the place we need to be in this present moment.

 

Today’s Gospel passage brings us back to the last night, in the Upper Room, with the disciples, which is an odd place, it seems to me, for us to find ourselves on the sixth Sunday in Easter. Conversely, the lesson from Acts finds us out with Paul, proclaiming the Good News, in the days of the early-Christian movement, which seems a much more natural place for us to be, as we approach the end of the Easter season.

 

But, the Gospel lesson actually provides the basis, the foundation, for that early work, and our continuing work today, so we do need to look at it closely.

 

D. Mark Davis, in his online Left Behind and Loving It,* notes that the translation of Jesus’ “I will not leave you orphaned” is actually “bereaved.”[i] I will not leave you “bereaved”, as in “bereft,” as orphans are, of their parents. And before I go any further, I just have to acknowledge how fortunate and thankful I am, in these days and times, when I don’t have access to a seminary library, or countless scholarly commentaries, to have access to online blogs of this caliber to assist me in my preparation of these sermons. [*I mis-identified this blog in the video]

 

I have often shared with you in the past that these five chapters of virtually uninterrupted discourse from Jesus on the last night in the Upper Room in John provide much of the foundation for my own faith, belief, and understanding; and this passage ranks right up there, because this is where Jesus introduces us to “another Advocate” – the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – who will be with us, and in us, after he departs.

 

Advocate has a legal connotation, as one who comes alongside and supports us, or advocates for us. I felt this support in an especially powerful way during my preparation for ministry, when I did my chaplaincy internship in Boston, so I’m going to tell you about that.

 

As many of you know, we go through CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education – in connection with our training and formation for ministry; and my CPE supervisor was that voice, that Advocate, to me, in a critical moment, that became a turning point for me.

 

I had reached an internal crisis during CPE – one that I couldn’t quite see, or put my finger on for myself, but that was affecting my self-confidence. Fortunately, I had the courage to go to my supervisor and admit what was going on – and I will never forget, as she looked at me, incredulously, and began poking me, repeatedly, in the chest – all 4’10” of her Irish Catholic sisterly countenance and brogue – and asked me what were “the tapes” playing in here (point to my chest) that were causing me to question, or doubt, myself?, because whatever they were, I needed to “burn” them.

 

“You are a good man” I remember her saying; “you are doing a wonderful job; but if you don’t believe in yourself, how are others going to be able to trust in your ministry to them, or benefit, from your wisdom and counsel?”

 

And I was able, in that moment, to identify the voices, the tapes, of those who had put me down, or, as it says in First Peter, had maligned what I was attempting to do, or become. You see, those voices are the opposite of the voice of our Advocate – they are the voice of the Accuser (capital A), and voices of our accusers (lower case a). And I shared those with her, and that day I began the process of burning those tapes. Had that not happened, I doubt very much that I would be standing here, in this space, worshipping with you.


So, you see, that is my accounting of the hope that is in me, along with the understanding, also from First Peter, that it is in and through our baptism into Christ’s body, that rite of initiation, which provides the basis for our ministry. It all springs forth from that intimate setting, on the last night, where Jesus assures us that we will not be left bereaved, because the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, is coming to us and will remain with us. All this provides the basis for my hope. Does this hope, this trust, that everything is going to be ok, mean that I think everything is ok? Certainly not!

 

And this is where we transition to the lesson from Acts, to Paul’s mention of the altar to an “unknown God,” and the early ministry in places where Christ was previously unknown.


Because it got me to thinking about those tragic conversations I encountered early on, in my return to church as an adult, about whether an indigenous tribe of people who had never heard of Jesus could be saved. I must confess, I have no time for such tortured machinations and hand-wringing.

 

What I do have time for is this – a conversation about what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means to worship Jesus – because I think this may be at the root of a lot of issues we are facing today.

 

Because I think we have all seen plenty of accounts recently of folks who are proclaiming Jesus, and likely, in many instances, even showing up to worship Jesus on Sunday, but who aren’t actually following much, if anything, of what Jesus laid down his life for.

 

When the great 20th century Christian mystic, Dorothy Soelle, announced that “the individualistic understanding of Jesus as ‘my personal savior’ was a catastrophic consequence of capitalism”[ii]I must confess it rang a bell for me, because it allows people to worship Jesus on Sunday, without the messiness of actually following him on Monday.

 

And it got me thinking about service and worship and the dualism we create in our minds around these two ways in which we follow Christ.

 

I remember being in seminary and hearing sermon after sermon on social justice, finally to the point where I started to become frustrated that it seemed like we were talking a lot, but we weren’t doing anything. When, and exactly how, were we going to enact this plan for justice that we were talking and hearing about?

 

And that’s when someone gently admonished me that

our worship is in fact, an
act of service.

Oh, well if that’s the case, then isn’t our service also a form of worship?

 

Ah, yes it is!

 

My point is: does the faith tradition, or lack thereof, of the person performing an act of service, or whether they even know Jesus, matter?

 

And conversely, if people are gathering to worship Jesus as their personal savior on Sunday, and ignoring everything he said on Monday, is that worship of any account in God’s eyes? If our altar is to a known God, but we fail to enact the justice required by the One who has been appointed to judge in righteousness, then what, exactly, have we accomplished? Because we have plenty of prophets throughout our scriptures who have assured us such worship is not pleasing to God, and is not heard on high.

 

And this is not a faith vs. works argument either, so let’s get rid of that dualism as well.

 

Because all that does is detract from the reality, if you read the news, that we live, right now, in a country, where Jesus is worshipped on Sunday, and black people are still being murdered on Monday, for driving, for jogging, for working, for being in the “wrong” neighborhood, and even while they’re sleeping in their homes. No, our worship must also enact God’s justice, else I have to question whether it mattersif it’s directed to, or conducted at the altar of, a known, or unknown, God.

 

So, again I ask, what is my defense, or accounting, for my hope?

 

It’s just this: this is all a starting point for following Jesus and enacting justice. Everything I’ve talked about here this morning is a starting point: our baptism, mentioned in First Peter, is a starting point; my realization during my CPE training, was simply a starting point for me, not an endpoint; Jesus saying goodbye on the last night isn’t an endpoint – the disciples think it is – but it’s not: Jesus is telling them they will not be left bereaved, but that

 

the Holy Spirit is coming to be
with them, with us – it’s all just a
starting point for our life in
Christ, not an endpoint. Their
work, our work, is just
beginning. Paul standing at the
Aeropagus, proclaiming Christ,
is a starting point for the
early-Christian movement and
community, not an endpoint.

 

The truth is, we still don’t know what’s coming in the months, weeks, and years ahead. We’re being warned of, and we’re seeing, food shortages, interruptions in the supply chain, unprecedented unemployment, a global lapse back into extreme poverty for millions, if not billions, of people.

 

Make no mistake, the virus, the wearing of a mask to keep front-line workers safe, has now been weaponized, in this country, into a partisan political issue – I’m ashamed to say, but we’ve managed to do that as well. But here’s the thing: the virus doesn’t care – it’s a virus. There has been no grief, no mourning, in a corporate sense, for the lives lost due to COVID-19, only a false choice between saving the economy or human lives.

 

So, as you can see, all the stages of grief are present, aren’t they? Anger, denial, bargaining, and despair; so what is our accounting, what is my accounting, what is your accounting, for hope? It’s right here, in these lessons, in this community, gathered as we are able in this moment, in this bread and this wine and this cup and this table, where Christ is known to us, and Christ is present with us.

 

Let us make our worship worthy
of the sacrifice we proclaim; let
us enact on Monday, the justice
that we proclaim on Sunday.

 

As we go forth, let us remember that our worship is service, and that our service is, indeed, worship, to the glory of a known, merciful, loving, and living, triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] D. Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It, “Attending Love”
https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/05/attending-love.html
[ii] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology. trans. John Bowden. (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: 1997). pp. 103.

 

 

 

 

 


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