Year A: The Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 25, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for The Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 17:22-31
The old saying goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” (Not sure who actually said that first.)

Paul’s comment at the Aeropagus actually fits quite well in contemporary society — “I see you are religious in every way.” We religiously head to the gym, we religiously support our favorite teams, we religiously hang out at our favorite restaurants where many of us religiously order pretty much the same thing each time we’re there.

We have lots of religious items on the spiritual menu, as well. Some say that all religions and spiritual traditions lead to the same place. Not so sure the Apostle agrees with that. It is his contention that “God…has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed…by raising him from the dead.”

What evidence of religious activity do you see around you? Are there “religious” — or, perhaps “spiritual” — points of contact with people that you can use to engage in conversation as Paul did?

Psalm 66:8-20
It’s a good thing that God has not rejected our prayers, nor has God removed God’s everlasting love from our lives. Even when we get testy or whiny about the nets that ensnare us or the burdens laid on our backs.

The “fire and water” language in the psalm echoes the promise given through the prophet: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV)

What prayers have you prayed that you feel confident God has heard? Do you ever feel that there are nets and snares laid for you as you navigate your way through life?

1 Peter 3:13-22
When I read these verses as a teenager, I was intrigued by the King James language that exhorted us to “be instant, in season and out.” For some reason, I could never get the image of a Lipton Cup of Soup out of my head — ready, warmed up, and available at a moment’s notice.

How do I keep my faith ready, warmed up, and available for sharing at a moment’s notice? “Always be ready…” the NRSV proffers.

Another of the features of my evangelical upbringing was learning that I could be “certain” about the tenets of the faith — this was touted as the reason I could always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who might “need Jesus.”

I don’t suppose we ever got around to reading v.16 that much. Gentleness and reverence — especially for another person’s faith perspective — were not generally on the list of attributes of a faithful witness, as I was taught it.

Thank God for patience — on the part of God who gently lets us mature in our faith, and from the many friends and strangers (and parishioners) who have put up with my feeble attempts at explaining the hope I have within me because of Christ.

How do you “stay ready” to share in the faith of Christ?

John 14:15-21
Love for Jesus translates into obedience to the things that Jesus has asked us to do. We do the same for those that we love in our earthly relationships, and rightly so. There are those persons that I love so much and so truly that, literally, I would do anything within my power to accomplish anything they asked me to do.

A preacher friend of mine was wont to use the line: “The answer is, ‘Yes, Lord;’ now, what’s the question?” I like that.

Is “obeying Jesus” a burden or a blessing? Where do you think that true obedience comes from?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Grumpy 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer drew a very stark portrait of the fate of the human race.  He compared us to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night.  He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt each other with our quills.  And in the lonely night of the Earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.” (cited by Wayne Brauner, Leadership Journal, Vol. 17, No.2)

What a powerfully sad image.  And the saddest thing about it is that all too often it is all too true.  We draw together for comfort; we prick each other, and then we pull away into loneliness.  In everything from international politics to backyard bickering; over and over again we see this sad scenario come true.

Almost half of all marriages end in divorce, friendships fail or fade away, churches fight and split, neighbors squabble, local government is awash in a sea of contentious contrariness, the federal government can’t stop name-calling and finger-pointing long enough to actually run the country.  Indeed, we draw together for comfort, we prick each other, and then we pull away into loneliness.

Sometimes this feels like an inevitable and incurable state of affairs.  We seemed to be doomed to a recurring cycle of false hope, shattered dreams and near despair.  Yet the Gospel says no, this is not our necessary future.  There is hope and that hope is Jesus, the Christ of God.

Jesus the Christ has broken into our downward spiral of spite and has transformed it into an ever ascending circle of love.  Jesus the Christ has appeared in the midst of our prickly huddle and has pointed us on the way to the peaceable Kingdom of God.

John 14:20-21: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” John lays before us a description of circle of love, a cycle of care, an upward spiral of gentleness and commonality.  A new community, built by the work of God in Christ andbound together in a web of love.

How do we become this community?  What do we have to do to make this happen here, here in our church? And the answer is:  nothing.  We don’t do anything to become this community; because we are, already, this community. We don’t become it; we are it.  It is already here, here in our midst.  It is a gift of God.  Our call is to learn to pay attention to our community, to look at it with love and nurture it with care.  To see within the huddled pile of prickly porcupines the already present body of Christ.

A young mother of four recently told me about something that happened in her family almost ten years ago.  Hers is a military family, her husband is an officer and they have had frequent moves around the country, most of their postings lasting only two to three years. They are people of faith, church people, and they always seek out a church and get active wherever they find themselves.  At the time of this incident they were in a wonderful church, a church that was particularly good for Jay, their five year old, who was extremely shy and awkward at the time.  His Sunday School teacher was another military man, a father of three himself.  He was a man who lit up a room with his smile, who made everyone he was talking to feel like the most important person in the world.  He was the perfect teacher for Jay, and the boy loved church because of that man in that class.

There came a time when Jay’s father was on a year-long deployment.  Those times are tough, tough on the military person, tough on their families.  The Sunday School teacher and his family were great about including my young friend and her three children in their family activities while Dad was away.  They were military, they understood.  In particular five year old Suzy knew how to get shy Jay out of his shell and into their activities. She would grab him by the hand and lead him into the midst of their play.

But, in January of that year a tragedy happened. The Sunday School teacher was killed in a training exercise. The community and the church were devastated.  As his widow and her children adjusted to their “new normal” (if you can even say something like that) they were noticeably absent from gatherings.  And the rest of their friends were heartbroken, too.

A month later for Valentine’s Day, one of the young mothers decided to host a party for all the kids the Sunday School teacher’s children knew from church.  Their mom dropped them off as she was just not quite ready yet for a public appearance.

The house was swarming with happy kids, and chatty moms, and every surface was draped with red and white and pink and purple banners and hearts and the word “Love”.  The sad little girls entered our friend’s home with downcast eyes.  Their anxiety was palpable. Then, an older boy waltzed up to them and said, in that nasty, sing-songy way that bullies seem to perfect, “Nice of you to show up since your dad died.   The older girl burst into tears.  There was stunned silence, then a flurry of activity as mothers rushed to discipline the one and comfort the other.

In a heartbeat, my young friend found herself alone with grief-stricken, abandoned little 5-year-old Suzy and silent, wide-eyed Jay.  She wanted to walk over and console that beautiful little lonely girl, but was afraid that Suzy wouldn’t recognize her.  She was so little and had been through so very, very much.  My friend remembers feeling as though the world had frozen around her, and she couldn’t move to help.

And then, and then…she watched as her child, her sweet, shy, little boy walked over to Suzy, put his arm around her shoulders and whispered, “I miss my dad, too.” They stood there in the kitchen holding onto each other with thumbs in their mouths, heads together, loving one another through the pain of separation and the sting of death. (Much of this story has been told in my friend’s words, not mine.  I changed names and pronouns for privacy.)

Jesus promised his disciples that he would not abandon them to the loneliness of the world’s dark night. In John 14:16 he said, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  And he has not.  He has come to us in the visible Body of Christ in the world, the church – which in this case was a shy little five year old boy reaching out with arms of love and words of comfort.

We are called to be the church in the world.  We are called to stand up and stand out in the midst of the world’s cold and prickly winter of loneliness and division as a unique and warm place of community and acceptance, of forgiveness and love.

Amen and amen.

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