Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Shepherd Speaks from Southern Oregon

The following sermon was delivered by The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon on the 4th Sunday of Eastertide. It reminded me, as The Rev. Susan Russell's sermon did for the same Sunday and lessons, that The Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, abides with us in our hearts and in our actual physical world, through our priests and their gifts of communicating Him who loves and cares for us, always;

~~In the name of the Living God, who is and was and is to come. Amen.

“Good morning, Church!”

Some times I’ve just got to do that, ever since I visited Mississippi Boulevard Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee one Eastertide and was mesmerized by a young black woman preacher who greeted her congregation from the pulpit in that way.

"'Good mornin’, Church! '"

I was one of less than five white people in a congregation of over 2,000. That service has taken hold in my heart and I return to it often in spirit. It has borne much fruit.

As a visitor, I’ve never been so warmly, graciously welcomed. The hospitality began in the parking lot and continued throughout the service. People in rows two and three over made a point to come over and introduce themselves and say they were glad we were there that morning. And they seemed to mean it. And though we white newcomers really stood out, clearly there were many visitors there who were black, and they were being greeted and welcomed in the same way. This had nothing to do with race. It was about Christian hospitality.

And the music! Ah, you can imagine. We were well warmed up by the time the young woman climbed into the pulpit, leaned over the edge, and said, “Good morning, Church!” As the sermon and then the service went on, every once in a while she’d check in with the flock and ask “How we doin’, church?” And the Church, the Body of Christ manifested in that time and place, embodied, Spirit-filled, incarnate, the Church would roar back their joy.

I learned many things that morning, and not least was the felt sense -- the sensation in my body -- of what it is to be Easter people together in prayer and praise. Flowing from our shared identity as the flock of Christ -- sheep of all sorts and conditions and colors and ages and stages of faith and formation -- one flock, we were. For that moment -- for that timeless time of worship, that liturgical “thin place” -- we tasted the Kingdom. We had heard his voice -- that’s why we were there. He was our shepherd. He had called us each by name and we were His and therefore, we were one another’s.

I think I’ve told you this story before, but let me tell it once again. I became an Anglican at age 29 when I found myself, during a bewildering period in my life, at a little Episcopal church called The Church of the Good Shepherd in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. The church was tiny by comparison to anything I had known before.

Everybody seemed to know everybody else, and I was afraid I might have unintentionally sat in “someone else’s pew,” if you know what I mean. I was unfamiliar with the Prayer Book and fumbled my way through the service as best I could, not wanting to draw attention to myself. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was there, except I yearned for something, some sure ground, some sense of direction and meaning in a difficult time, some compassion to touch me from beyond myself; an assurance of hope; forgiveness; a new beginning... I couldn’t have said any of those words that first time I wandered in. I didn’t know why I was there...I just was.

Perhaps you know what that’s like. Maybe you, like me, were one of those persons who wandered into a church one day, not sure what it was, or who it was you were looking for, not sure you really wanted to be there, perhaps you’d tried this before and had been terribly disappointed, or very bored, or put off in some way so you’re loath to even try it again but you do, so you slip in quietly, unobtrusively. Perhaps pulled there from some childhood memory, you sense your mind gearing up to argue, rebel, dismiss -- and yet...and yet... there you are, there I was all those years ago at the little Church of the Good Shepherd. I didn’t know much about Eucharist in those days, though I was struck by the joyful tone of celebration, so different from the dark and penitential atmosphere I remembered from my childhood church.

At first, I wasn’t going to go up with the others to the altar rail but before I realized it I found myself on my feet and halfway down the aisle. So I knelt and held out my empty hands. When the priest came to me, he leaned down and gently asked “What is your name?”

Startled and touched to the core, my eyes filled with tears as I whispered “Anne.”
He put the wafer in my hand and said, “Anne, this is the body of Christ.”
And it was. I had been brought home. And so it began.

And so it is for all of us. I tell this story not because it’s mine, but because it is ours. The Story is the same old story, over and over again, of being lost and being found,of hungering for we don’t know what until we’ve been fed, of learning to trust in the goodness of God as we slowly, slowly let go of our fear and dare to remove our wellpolished armor, piece by painful piece. Easter people we are, every last one of us, died and raised into new life in Christ Jesus.

How we doin’, Church?

Do you remember that wonderful musical Les Miserables, which was made into a movie some years ago. Early on is a scene that haunts me. Jean Valjean, just released from prison, in for 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, finds sanctuary his first night out at the home of the provincial bishop. Early the next morning, Jean steals the household silver, attacking the bishop in the process. Within hours, he is caught by the police and hauled back to the bishop’s house. Unbelievably, the bishop backs up the story Jean Valjean told the police, says, yes, indeed, he, the bishop, gave the silver to this convict, he had wanted him to have it, and besides, why hadn’t Valjean taken the candlesticks, too, he had wanted him to have those as well. The police have no choice put to release the man. They leave. Then the bishop gets the candle-sticks, puts them in the bag with the other stolen pieces, and says: “With this silver you are ransomed from the power of evil and restored to your place as a child of God.”

It was Jean Valjean’s moment of in-breaking grace. Same old story of sin and redemption, unearned, amazing grace, forgiveness and freedom. It’s the same story of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Peter forgiven by the risen Christ at a breakfast picnic on the beach when Jesus asked him three times “Do you love me?” and told him three times to “Feed my sheep.” It’s my story and it’s your story. Wherever we find Easter people, we find this story of startling new life and the challenge and joy of living into the new reality of God’s kingdom, a day at a time.

Peter and John and the first disciples knew all about those challenges and joys. Keeping one foot firmly planted in his tradition, Peter leaned and stretched himself farther than he could ever have imagined himself doing, and reaching out into the future he spoke not only to his Jewish brothers and sisters and but also to those Gentile visitors, the ones in the back pews, the ones who didn’t know exactly why they were there, but some yearning had brought them to that place of worship, to all of them Peter said: “Here. Take. This Jesus who suffered and died and rose again, He is the Christ. Salvation. Now. You have been ransomed from evil and redeemed; take your place as a child of God. You are forgiven. You are free. You are healed. You are loved.”

Peter witnessed to the deepest truth he knew, and his words changed others because he himself embodied resurrected life in his own person. He knew that his own little story was a part, a tiny but powerful reflection of God’s Great and Unfolding Story. Jesus had called him by name, and Peter had followed. What follows from that -- from following Christ; from being an Easter person -- is a radical change in attitude that leads, as it did for Peter, into starling new realities and always – always! -- into new and radically inclusive community, a community whose mission and ministry is to take care of each other and the stranger, alike. We are one flock, we have one shepherd.

In our prayer at the altar, we ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify us as well as the bread and wine, that we may faithfully receive the Holy Sacrament, and serve in unity, constancy, and peace. What a needed prayer for the church in these days! We pray we may continue to serve God in unity, constancy and peace. We pray that prayer for our Episcopal church when we gather at the upcoming General Convention in June. We pray that prayer for our Anglican communion, struggling to find a way to stay together, to be of “one heart and one soul” in Christ. We pray that prayer of unity, constancy and peace for the worldwide Christian Church as we live with deep divisions of theology and biblical interpretation, forgetting we have the same shepherd.

Like Peter, we are called to keep one foot firmly planted in the faith as we have received it, while at the same time we stretch – often off-balance – into the future, enlarging the circle to include those on the edges. And we stretch and we peer into the future and we hold onto our faith and onto each other and most of all onto our Lord, and we pray – in our confusion, in our joy, in our uncertainty – we pray with Gerald Manley Hopkins:

“Let [Christ] easter in us; be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”

O dear God let Christ easter in us! Let Christ be a dayspring to the dimness of us, for we are dim, each and every one of us, no matter how enlightened we imagine ourselves to be, no matter how certain we are that we have grasped the essence of Your Mystery. Easter people wherever they are -- at Mississippi Baptist Church in Memphis Tennessee or at little Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri or with those who listened to St. Peter preach at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem all those many years ago or here today in this congregation at Trinity, Ashland -- and at every time and every place, Easter people know we are to continue widening and broadening the circle, as we forgive, and heal, and liberate, and love, and put our precious treasures into other people’s sacks so that they might have life.

Dare we let ourselves believe that the Holy One is leading us into new resurrected realities of forgiveness and freedom, healing and holiness, new life in Christ that we cannot yet even begin to imagine?

O Church: how are we doing?~~

Reprinted with permission from The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, 05/09/2006


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