Sermon preached at St. James Episcopal Church, New Castle, Indiana, on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (June 2, 2019). Readings: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; John 17:20-26; Psalm 97
Well good morning, St. James. I’m Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism, and it is my privilege to be with you today.
Part of what makes me passionate about my work is the fact that I came to believe as an adult. And I have spent considerable thought over the years piecing together the work of the Spirit and the work of various people that made my experience possible, and have wondered about what lessons there are there that can help us share the deep joy we find in our faith with others.
I didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing. I mean, we were culturally Christian - we celebrated Christmas and Easter, until my brother and I outgrew Easter egg hunts, and then it was just Christmas. But religion was around - my father’s father was a Lutheran minister. My mom grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and her father became a Roman Catholic deacon. There were bibles and books of theology gathering dust on bookshelves in the guest bedroom. And one of my mom’s bibles in particular had lots of color illustrations of things like the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, various scenes from the life of Jesus. I used to flip through the pictures with some frequency, but never read the book.
Until one summer when I took it to camp and determined that I would read it, or at least make a start. I made a valiant effort. I got through Genesis and Exodus - lots of good stories there. But then I hit Leviticus. It was only a few chapters before I gave up on that. So I went to the next book, Numbers, and it was, well, lists of numbers, so I figured I’d maybe just flip to the last page of this big book and see how the whole thing turned out. And I found the few paragraphs we read from Revelation this morning: something about the tree of life, and the water of life, and some Greek letters, and for ten or eleven year old me, this made no sense whatsoever, and I set the Bible aside for the next 10 years or so.
Today we arrive at the seventh Sunday of Easter, and while we still have the rest of this week before the Great Fifty Days are over, this is the last time we’ll be celebrating this year’s season of the resurrection, together as a church community.
So two of our readings today are about endings. In Revelation we hear the very last words of scripture, wrapping up a few loose ends, I guess. The tree of life in the New Jerusalem is a mirror of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that kicked off this whole mess in the first place. And the water of life at the end calls to mind the spirit of God moving over the face of the deep in the beginning.
And the Gospel reading today, and all its difficult to follow sentences, what with the “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” business, is the final part of what is known as Jesus’s farewell discourse, his last words to the disciples before he is crucified.
But these endings are also beginnings of a new story, the story we are living now. The Revelation of St. John ends with a promise of Christ’s return, the fulfillment of which we still await.
But more important, I think, Is the part of the Gospel where Jesus starts praying for us, like I mean, really us - you and me, in this room right now, in the Gospel today.
“Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.’”
Look at what is happening here. The second person of the Trinity, God the Son, is saying a prayer to the first person, God the Father. And the prayer is not just for the disciples but for every generation that comes to believe through the disciples’ word. That’s us, friends. It is an eternal prayer that, as professor Barbara Lundblad puts it, “hangs in the space between earth and heaven, between time past and time present and time yet to come.”(1)
This prayer hovers over us as a hen protects her chicks under her wings. This prayer hovered over our grandparents as it hovers over our children and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews, cousins and friends, and generations we won’t live to see.
Jesus prays this prayer with the purpose “That they all may be one.” In other words he prays that our faith in him will be the thread that binds us through space and time to the disciples, “prophets, apostles, and martyrs...all those...who have looked to [God] in hope [in every generation],” (2) And ultimately to Jesus Christ himself, the one God the Father has loved “since the foundation of the world”.
And the way all this will happen? Jesus prays for those who hear through the disciples’ word. Which means he’s also praying for those who heard through those who heard the disciples’ word, and those who heard those who heard those who heard the disciples’ word, and so on through the present day.
Which means Jesus is praying for someone to hear your word.
So what do you have to say?
Yesterday Rachel Held Evans, one of the great biblical interpreters of our time, was laid to rest. She was a young mother who died unexpectedly after a severe allergic reaction to an antibiotic.
As an interpreter of the Bible, though she was incredibly smart, she wasn’t so much a scholar ss an explorer, who sought to understand the Bible’s meaning by experiencing its stories first hand.
In her 2012 book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, she examined the various passages of scripture in the Old and New Testaments that attempt to govern how a woman should behave. The book is by turns hilarious and poignant.
At one point, trying to see what it is like to do what Proverbs 31 suggests an ideal wife should do: make “her husband [known] at the city gates,” she stands on the highway at the city limits of her town holding a cardboard sign saying, “Dan is awesome!” What effect this exercise had on her husband’s reputation is unclear.
But also, rRecounting the many horrific stories of exile, abandonment and murder visited by men upon women in the Bible, she and a friend create aservice of remembrance for Hagar, cast out in the wilderness, for Jephthah’s daughter, sacrificed by her father, for an unnamed concubine, who is “thrown into a mob, gang-raped, killed, and dismembered.”(3) They sit with these painful stories, remember these women, and they grieve.
Through this exploration, Rachel Held Evans did not somehow magically make sense of it all, nor did she come to agree with everything scripture seems to say a woman should do. Though she experimented with it, she did not, ultimately, submit unquestioningly to her husband, and she certainly did not stay silent in church.
But what she did do was transform scripture from some book about far off people in a strange culture with sometimes incomprehensible practices into her own story.
And so when we see events like the shooting in Virginia Beach, we know that this, too, is part of God’s story, that God’s people have experienced massacres and wars and sorrow. This doesn’t make it ok. But we can trust that even in tragedy we are held in God’s love.
Which brings me to our reading from Acts. There’s a lot happening here - divination, an exorcism, an earthquake. The miraculous elements of the story are revelations of the power of God, but focus on them too much and you can lose sight of who they’re happening to: a slave girl whose worth in the world is based on how much money the demon that possesses her can make for her owners. A jailer who’s a cog in the machine of a corrupt and oppressive Roman regime, prepared to kill himself because of the retribution that empire will visit on a man who loses some prisoners to an earthquake - as if he’s supposed to have control over an earthquake.
So this story isn’t so far off from our own world, where we are measured by our ability to accumulate wealth - or to spend it. To most businesses after all, our value isn’t our inherent worth as people, but our ability to be good consumers. And we have great edifices of law and culture to preserve a particular kind of order, and a great many people who are cogs in the machinery of judgment.
And it’s a judgment that says you are less than if you don’t have enough education or you have an addiction, or you’re not pretty, or skinny, or healthy enough. Or you’re ashamed of debt, failings as a parent or spouse, or all the petty sins that mark our daily lives.
The world we live in and the world of the Acts of the Apostles differ in that we have better plumbing, longer lifespans, and smartphones (which may or may not be an improvement). But they are the same in that the powers and principalities of both worlds want us to believe that our fundamental worth is somehow related to how well we can preserve the interests of an empire and keep up appearances.
The work of conversion of hearts is the work of the spirit. So we should take a little pressure off ourselves - making someone believe what we believe isn’t our responsibility.
But we do have a responsibility to share our own stories of faith so that when God acts in someone’s life, God can be recognized because that someone has already heard of the faith passed down from the disciples to us. And we can start doing that by knowing our own story well, and discovering how our own story fits into the great arc of God’s love for the world revealed in scripture and most of all in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Revelation of St. John the Divine is exhilarating and terrifying. The chapters that bring us the the final poetic paragraphs of scripture are filled with fearsome signs and battle, but it is all in the service of clearing away everything the world has gotten wrong about who God is and what the creation is meant to be and strips it back to God’s actual intention: That the people of God may enter God’s holy city by the gates; that the grace of God is the water of life for thirsty and beloved souls.
“And let everyone who hears [this] say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
(2) Eucharistic Prayer C, 1979 Book of Common Prayer
(3) Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.