|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, May 24, 2020 12:46 PM|
sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
It’s a big story, and in the church we tell it over the course of every year: the story of how God became a human being, and of all that happened as a result. We’re nearing the end of the story, which, naturally, gives way to a beginning. We are characters in the story ourselves. And the purpose of the story is to help us know and understand where we came from, to whom we belong, and where we’re all headed next.
After Jesus ascended and left them behind, the disciples returned into the city, and they waited. Days went by, and still they waited. What did they do during that time? We hear that they constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
There’s one more thing they did during that time, though we don’t hear this part of the story today: they chose a replacement for Judas. I guess it bugged Peter that Jesus’ inner circle now contained only eleven, when twelve is a far more appropriate number. Personally, I would have chosen one of the women who told them Jesus was risen in the first place: Mary Magdalene, perhaps? But she got passed over for a promotion in favor of a man chosen literally at random. Typical. They pick Matthias to be their number twelve, but after this he never shows up in the Bible again. Maybe Matthias was more of a fan than a player. After all, he was the “twelfth man.”
If it sounds like I’m getting a little punchy under quarantine, well, maybe. But on Thursday I preached about how awkward the Ascension is for Christians, and we’re still in that awkwardness. It’s a fitting liturgical season for us right now. We’ve talked before about how the joy of Easter turned out not to be purely joyous, but also unsettling and weird. The disciples were consistently kept on their heels, trying to figure out what the risen Christ was up to, but then he just up and left. Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit—was still on the way. Between Ascension and Pentecost, they felt rather adrift.
I can relate to the disciples. Right now I feel like our sources of comfort have been yanked away from us. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Wouldn’t you rather be at the Folklife Festival, which is nevertheless taking place online as a series of recordings? Wouldn’t you rather be at a backyard barbecue with many people, instead of maybe hanging out with one or two people and hollering at them across a carefully measured divide? Or attending a Memorial Day event with other veterans? Or attending any number of potential parties, concerts, plays, movies? Are there people you have missed seeing in person for months now? Summer plans that you’re still grieving the loss of?
So many of our sources of comfort are just gone. They haven’t been replaced with anything remotely worthy. And we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting for a new source of comfort.
Nevertheless, next week we will celebrate the coming of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit breathing life into something new: the Church. We’ll all gather in front of our screens again, and please wear read! It’s a Pentecost tradition. Pentecost is going to happen, friends, whether we feel ready or not. The Holy Spirit is coming! Because God’s action doesn’t depend on our feelings.
Maybe that’s the most important thing we can learn today: God’s action doesn’t depend on our feelings.
I had a conversation like this with a couple parishioners this week. We were talking about sacraments, what the church defines as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” In other words, there are certain actions we in the Church where we see God reliably at work, most particularly baptism and Holy Communion. The other traditionally recognized sacraments are confirmation, marriage, ordination, reconciliation, and healing.
These are actions the church does, yes, but they are actions in which we believe God acts as well. So if a marriage falls apart, that doesn’t mean God wasn’t at work there. If we know a lousy priest, that doesn’t mean God wasn’t at work there. Our feelings are not a reliable measure of where God is.
In the same way, when a third of a million people have died from a virus, and one third of those are from our own nation, we may feel that God is absent. Like the disciples in the upper room, a group of people who likely felt that Jesus had abandoned them, we gather persistently in a Zoom room and on Facebook because we need each other. Just like them, we also need to be reminded of Jesus’ promise to us: “I will not leave you comfortless.”
We look to all our readings for the day, like the one from First Letter of Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” This elder in the church wrote to Christians elsewhere who were suffering persecution: Well, what did you expect? This is just how life is. And we can feel free to disagree with him about whether God is “testing us,” though if we choose to see this pandemic as a test, we may find that we can learn a lot from it.
We can be grateful for times when we are not suffering, but this should not lead us to expect that our comfort is the normal state of things. Christ’s resurrection did not fix the world once and for all; it was only the beginning of a process that he insisted he would not do alone. Jesus kicked off a new era in which the fate of our souls is not at the mercy of the world’s brokenness. That was the fix we needed, so we could be empowered to take up Jesus’ work and continue it: Love anyway! Despite everything that is rotten, love!
I don’t know how badly you’ve suffered from this pandemic, but for most of us, it’s probably on the lesser end. I know that I’ve suffered little more than having to go back to my ’80s hairstyle, delaying some dental work, and not being able to hug people I love. So when we hear that we are to resist the devil because “your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,” hoo boy, these words are for us. If we let comfort become our idol, we put ourselves in the service of the devil instead of God.
Now, about that devil. We Episcopalians tend to be reasonable, well-mannered, educated people, so talk about Satan can make us squirm. Many of us think there’s something superstitious about believing in the devil at all. And that’s true, if we’re looking for a red, corporeal being with horns, a pitchfork and a unibrow, who acts as God’s hangman—or worse, some sort of competing deity who might yet win the cosmic war! Those are unhelpful images—distractions from the truth.
But there’s nothing superstitious about believing in evil. We know that evil is very real, and we’ve all committed evil acts, not just mildly offensive acts. Satan is the personification of the forces in us that urge us toward the destruction of ourselves or others. So I do see the devil at work these days, for sure. I see him when people choose their own convenience over other people’s safety. I see him when people are given the facts they need but disregard them in favor of comforting lies. I see him when people turn nasty and take out their frustration on others: “Well, let them gather by the thousands, then! They’ll help clear up the gene pool!” No. No. Get behind me, Satan.
Re-focus. In today’s gospel passage, we get a glimpse into the inner life of the Trinity. We hear Jesus Christ praying to God the Father in the presence of the disciples at the Last Supper, mere hours before his arrest: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
And, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
That’s it. Eternal life means knowing God. And God’s purpose is that we may be one.
What does that mean—all of us being one? Can you imagine?
To tell you the truth, I’m not optimistic about that. But I am hopeful—thanks to Jesus. Optimism is different from hope. Optimism means that I’m willing to disregard the facts and just assume everything will be OK. Optimism will leave me unprepared when reality smacks me in the face.
Hope is better informed. Hope means that I accept the hard truth of the way things are and press on anyway toward the oneness God intends for us.
The Holy Spirit is coming—is already here, and is also always coming, falling fresh on us, firing us up. We will celebrate this next Sunday. God’s action doesn’t depend on our feelings.
Then, two weeks from today, on June 7, another very special thing is happening. Word came from the bishop’s office this week that we are all invited to gather for worship as an entire diocese—all 100 congregations in Western Washington. Obviously we won’t be in person. But there are tens of thousands of Episcopalians in our diocese, so that would never be possible in any other time. Right now, it’s totally possible.
On June 7, Trinity Sunday, at 11:00 a.m., we can all tune in to YouTube or Facebook for one special worship service, with Bishop Greg presiding. It’s not yet the oneness Jesus was praying for. But it’s a unique oneness for our unique situation. We’ll post links to that service on our website and in the Shepherd’s Crook email. We can reach out to those parishioners without easy access to the internet and help them find creative ways to join. We can also invite friends.
We are characters in the big story, the story we tell in the church over the course of every year. We’re nearing the end of the story, which, naturally, gives way to a beginning. And the purpose of the story is to help us know and understand that we are headed for eternal life, which is simply to know God fully. And we are headed for oneness—all of us, together.
After Jesus ascended and left them behind, the disciples returned into the city, and they waited. During that time, they constantly devoted themselves to prayer. Let’s do the same. Amen.