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Luke 24:36b-38

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he?

The Risen Lord, by He Qi

Here the disciples are, deep in shock and mourning because their Teacher, their Lord, the man they thought was their Savior, is dead … and two of their group are telling them this fantastical story about how they met the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, and boom! There’s Jesus … right … in … front … of … them!

Good Lord, they thought they were seeing a ghost!

How can this be?!

They saw (although from a distance) Jesus die on the cross!

They saw (again, from a distance) Jesus’ body laid in a tomb!

They’ve been in hiding for three days – three days! – because they know the Romans are really good at rounding up “known associates” and hanging them on crosses, too – just to teach the rabble a little lesson, don’t you know …

And, boom!

There’s Jesus, standing right in front of them!

And how does he comfort them?

But telling them, in essence: Your turn!

You are the witnesses, he says, to all these extraordinary things that happened when I was with you.

And you are the witnesses to the fact that here I am with you now, raised from the dead.

I’m not a ghost, he says, not a dream.

I am risen!

And now it’s your turn …

So go on. Get out of here. Go tell the story.

You.

And you.

And you.

You are the witnesses.

And I, the Risen Lord, am counting on you.

• • •

I am confident this is not what the disciples wanted to hear.

When you get right down to it, they have never been the ones to do all the work, have they?

After all, Jesus performed the miracles.

Jesus preached.

Jesus taught.

Jesus healed.

And now he’s telling them it’s their turn?

Their turn to tell the story, to witness to all they had seen and heard and learned and experienced?

Their turn to perform miracles?

Their turn to preach?

To teach?

To heal?

Them?!?!?

• • •

For us sitting here, 2,000 years after the fact, this sounds like a no-brainer, I know.

It’s easy for us to say, “Yeah, c’mon, disciples, go do your job! Go tell the story!”

And it’s just as easy for us to say, “Well, we know they did, because if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. So good job, disciples!”

It is easy for us to say all that, and to sit back with a bit of satisfaction and perhaps even some smugness.

“Yep, those disciples. Didn’t get it at first, but man, when the Risen Lord challenged them, they finally got it, finally did what Jesus told them to do. A bit slow out of the blocks at first, but after that, yep, they did a good job, don’t you think?”

And then, of course, we can walk away from all that.

Because the job is done, right?

It’s over with, right?

My friends, the good news is that indeed, the disciples did  get over their shock, they did tell the story, and as a result, we are here today.

Sounds like the end of the story, doesn’t it?

Alas, I am here today to tell you:

No it is not the end of the story.

It’s just the beginning.

Sir Winston Churchill

As Winston Churchill said at the end of the Battle of Britain, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

And at the end of the beginning, it is now our turn.

Our turn to be the witnesses.

Our turn to tell the story.

Our turn to perform the miracles – to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, proclaim the good news that God indeed does love us … to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk and the mute sing with joy!

Our turn to teach and preach and tell the story.

Make no mistake, my friends.

The Risen Lord is not just talking to the disciples 2,000 years ago.

He is talking … to us.

Because we are the witnesses.

Now I know that a lot of people these days – perhaps even some of us sitting right here today – are not interested in preaching and teaching about the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. We are not interested in going throughout the world and proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Not outside the doors of this church, at any rate.

But we really do not have a choice in this, do we?

Because Jesus, because the Risen Lord, the one we are here celebrating this very day, has given us our marching orders.

He is saying to us, right here, right now:

You are my witnesses.

So go on … go tell the story!

You.

And you.

And you!

• • •

Let’s do a little experiment.

Let’s figure out a way for you … for each of you … for each of us … to tell the story.

(Warning Number One: This is a little lesson in evangelism, which is part of mission, which is the very reason for which God created us. As Jesus said, “What are you afraid of?” It’s just a little evangelism …)

(Warning Number Two: I’ll tell you about that in a minute.)

Do you see these flowers here?

These are pansies.

Cute little things, aren’t they?

Harbingers of spring …

You see them all the time, all over the place.

Hardy little buggers, aren’t they?

I bet you did not know that in addition to being pretty, you can eat them.

Yes, you can.

You can pull the flowers right off the stem and eat them.

Mmmm, mmmm, good, as the commercial says.

(eat … eat … eat)

(Warning Number Two revisited: Before you go outside and starting pulling up flowers to eat, know this: You can’t eat most of them. Make sure you’re eating pansies, OK? Nothing else …)[1]

Now … if one of you were to call someone who is not at church today to witness the preacher standing in the pulpit eating pansies and told that someone that the preacher indeed did stand in the pulpit and eat pansies … do you think that person would believe you?

Most likely not.

I’m fairly certain this is not happening in a lot of churches this morning.

So if one of you were to call that one person and tell that person about what I’m doing, that person most likely would think you were doing nothing but telling a fantastical story.

You might even scare that person (who would be wondering, I assure you, not about me, but about you and your sanity).

Now, what if two of you were to tell the same story to the same person?

Do you think that person might believe two of you?

No?

Well, what if say, 10 of you were to tell the story … the exact … same … story?

That person might … or might not … believe you.

But … what if everyday here were to call that one person who is not here, and told the exact same story?

Would that person believe you then?

And what if all of you were to tell everyone you met … today, tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday … that your preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies?

Wouldn’t that be a great story to tell?

Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier story to tell than just walking up to a friend (or heaven forfend, a stranger) and saying, “Listen, let me tell you about Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord”?

Wouldn’t you rather go up to a friend, or heaven forfend, a stranger, and say, “You’re never gonna believe what happened in church this morning? The preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies”? Doesn’t that make for a much easier story to tell?

Because then folks are going to ask you, “Where do you go to church?” And you can answer, “I go to St. Martin’s … you know, over on Jamestown road … right near the place that serves breakfast, lunch and antiques.”

And doesn’t it then give you the opening to tell the rest of the story?

I’m telling you:

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches.

The Risen Lord is standing right here in our midst, and telling us, in no uncertain terms:

You are my witnesses.

So go!

Go tell the story!

If that makes you nervous, fear not.

You can start by telling them about pansies in the pulpit first.

Heck, if you want, you can even eat some pansies yourself.

I guarantee you, people will listen.

So remember:

It’s our turn.

We are the witnesses.

And we’ve got one heck of a great story to tell.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2012, Year B, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Williamsburg, Va.



[1] Yes, you can eat other flowers. I know this. But for the purposes of talking to folks in the pew in church, the warning is simple: If it’s not a pansy, do not eat it!

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Come and see

John 1:29-42

            The man was walking alongside the river late one night, trying to get from one place to the next, neither of them being home, but needing to keep going. It was a cold night, clear and crisp, with the stars shining brightly above him and the waters flowing smoothly beside him and the path laid out easily below him. Other people were walking that path beside the river with him, people also intent on getting from one place to the next, hoping that they could end their journeys for the day sooner rather than later, for no one likes to be out at night, especially when they were not at home.

And then the man heard the young men in the group ahead of him singing, singing songs loudly and joyfully (what, he thought, was there to be joyful about on this night, when it seemed so dark and life was getting more difficult with each rising of the sun?), praising God (which God? he wondered) and telling some sort of story with their songs (what story? he wanted to know).

The man continued to walk along, following these singers, feeling better for hearing them but not understanding why.

Finally, he asked the young men: Who are you singing about? What God are you praising? What is the meaning of this joyful music? What do you have to be happy about? (For the man was hearing these songs and asking these questions at the very end of a long and brutal war, a war in which his people suffered mightily at the hands of a greater and very oppressive enemy.)

And then the young men began to speak, to tell the story of another young man, from a place very far away in a land barely known to them. They told of how angels had appeared in the sky, singing, “Glory to God on high.” They told of how this one young man was God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, who would save their people, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, who made the lame not just walk but leap like deer, who raised people from the dead, who fed the hungry and who filled their hearts with joy … with love … and most of all, with hope. And they told him, “Whatever you are looking for, you will find it in this man from this faraway land.”

As the young men spoke, the man’s heart was filled with that love, and he began to feel the joy and for the first time in a very long time, he began to believe that he, too, would find hope in a world that for so very long had seemed so very hopeless.

Then he asked them, “Where are you staying?”

And they replied, “Come and see.”

So he went and he saw and he heard and he believed. All night long, they talked and sang and prayed, and before the sun came up on the new morning, the man who had been walking alongside the river on a very dark night believed. He had not seen the man who gave such promise to the world, he did not know the whole story, and yet … he knew enough, enough to believe. He continued to learn the story from the youths, and he went to church, and three years later, he was baptized, and seven years after that, he was confirmed, and then he, too, became an evangelist, he, too, became the one walking along the river, singing the songs, and one day, years later, he became a priest.

And now he is the one who tells the story and gives people hope, and he is the one who teaches and preaches and pastors and baptizes and marries and buries the people.

All because one night, one cold, crisp Christmas Eve night, in the deepest part of South Sudan, walking alongside the River Nile, he heard Christmas songs being sung and the Christmas story being told, and when the young men said to him, “Come and see,” he went and saw and he believed.

• • •

The group gathered on the dock by the Bay of Gonave in Haiti, looking across the 2-mile stretch of open water to the Isle of Gonave. They were going, some for the first time, to see the tiny church of St. Simon and St. Jude in a village precariously perched atop one of the island’s mountain ridges, a church that only a year before had been but a dream but now was ready to be consecrated.

Normally, the trip across the bay came via a two-hour ferry ride, but on this day, a non-governmental organization was loaning the use of a speedboat to take the group across. Forty minutes later, they landed on the island, a fairly desolate place smack dab in the craw of the western end of the island of Hispaniola, where in 1492, Christopher Columbus had sailed the ocean blue and landed, bringing Christianity with him.

Somewhere on the heights of Gonave was a tiny village, if it even could be called that, known as Platon Balai, a wind-swept place of rocks and scrub brush, with little fresh water, little arable land and a population of hardy souls who for years had wanted a church of their own but had no way to build one. Until a group of Christians arrived – some from Arkansas, some from Georgia. Over the years, a medical clinic had been built nearby. Then a school room. And now, finally, after intense story-telling followed by even more intense fund-raising followed by incredibly hard work, a church had been built, a real church, made of concrete blocks with a tin roof well secured to withstand the storms and hurricanes that routinely attacked Haiti.

All the people needed now was the Bishop of Haiti to come to consecrate St. Simon and St. Jude, the bishop to come and bless the place and the people, to celebrate a Eucharist and baptize and confirm.

So he came, this Bishop, who once had served as the priest on the island, caring for the few thousand hardy souls who lived there, planting parishes without church buildings, organizing the people, praying with them and for them. The bishop led the group of Americans over the water by speedboat, then across the island on sorry excuses for roads and paths in borrowed SUVs for two hours, and then on foot on a meandering path that cut back and forth through the brush and up the mountain for another hour until the donkeys that had been rented finally caught up, and then by donkey ride up the rest of the mountain for yet another hour.

“We go,” the bishop said, “where the people are. If we need to drive for two hours, then walk for an hour, then ride a donkey for another hour, that is what we do. We go,” he said, “to the people, and the church grows.”

At the summit, the group was greeted by 100 or so of the members of St. Simon and St. Jude, proudly showing off their new church, which they had built with their own hands, funded by churches – Episcopal, Presbyterian and Anglican – in Arkansas and Georgia. Those Americans had come to Haiti to meet the people, to listen to them. They had come and they had seen, and they had believed, and now, five years later, after multiple trips, after working hand in hand with the people of Gonave, they were here again, to see the fruits of their labors.

• • •

Come and see.

This is what Jesus said to the two disciples, Andrew and another, who were disciples of John the Baptizer, who had proclaimed Jesus as God’s Chosen One, as the Lamb of God, and who wanted to know where Jesus was staying.

Come and see.

If we want to live the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Gospel that called Andrew and then Simon and then the other disciples, and then the 3,000 and then Paul, and then the untold numbers who came after Paul, the same Gospel that eventually called those young men who sang as they walked along the river that Christmas Eve night in 1973, the same Gospel that called Father Paulo, the same Gospel that called the people of island of Gonave in Haiti, the same Gospel that called the people of Arkansas and Georgia  … if you want to live that Gospel, all of these people say to you: Come and see.

Come and see the Gospel as it lives in places where the people have nothing else, where war and oppression and famine and disease and nature itself claim their lives in untold numbers, where despite the hardship of their lives, the people believe. They believe in the man who came from a small village in a despised place, the man who walked the land as they walked the land, who came to them and lived with them and blessed them, even though the powers and principalities told them, day after day, that they were not blessed.

Come and see your brothers and sisters in Christ in Sudan and Haiti, who are related to you not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, because it is only when you have seen, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, the tragedies that are their lives that you can see, with your eyes, and with your hearts and with your souls, how alive they are in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

For the Gospel is alive – in places like Sudan, now split into two countries, where the wars that raged for five decades continue to this day; in places like Haiti, where four hurricanes in five weeks in 2008 was just the way life was, where a devastating earthquake in 2010 took the lives of 300,000 people and displaced another 1 million people – one-tenth of the population, in 38 seconds.

Your siblings in Christ are beckoning you: Come and see the Gospel come alive in their parishes, their schools, their villages. Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run schools, where all the children are given the education that the state denies them, because they are poor or from the wrong tribe or speak another language.

Come and see the Gospel come alive in their church-run clinics, where every single person who comes in for treatment is treated with dignity, even if they cannot pay.

Come and see the Gospel come alive in their evangelism revivals, where they preach the love of God in Christ Jesus to all of the people and proclaim God’s peace, which passes all understanding, and God’s justice, which rolls down like waters, and God’s reconciliation, which brings about God’s kingdom on this earth.

Come and see the Gospel come alive when your brothers and sisters in Christ proclaim God’s hope, in lands where the powers that be long ago proclaimed that for the poor and the destitute, for the people from the wrong tribe or ethnicity, that there was no hope from generation to generation.

Your Sudani siblings in Christ and your Haitian siblings in Christ join together to beg you:

Come.

And see. And believe.

For the Gospel is alive and well in Sudan and in Haiti, and they want you to know this. They want you to know this because they believe that if you know this, if you see it, with your eyes and with your hearts and with your souls, then you will be, as they are, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the greatest thing of all:

You, like they, will spread the love of God to all of God’s beloved children.

You, like they, will spread that love – that undefined yet powerful love – that captured Andrew and caused him to bring along Simon, who was to be called Cephas, which means Peter; the love that captured Paul and made him an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God; the love that on Christmas Eve 1973 captured your brother in Christ Paulo Ajang Thiel Lual; the love that captured the people on the island of Gonave in Haiti; the love that captured the people from Arkansas and Georgia, causing them to travel thousands of miles, by air, by water, by car, by foot, by donkey.

If this is what we do – if this is what we all do, spreading God’s love to those who are far off and those who are near, here in Newtown and there in Sudan and there in Haiti and everywhere in between – then we indeed will change the world, we indeed will bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.

Spreading God’s love, proclaiming God’s love, living God’s love … this is what we are called to do. It’s what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Sudan. It is what they are striving and sometimes even dying to do in Haiti.

Which is why they want you … to come … and see.

Amen.

Sermon preached at Newtown United Methodist Church, Newtown, Pa., 12 February 2012, Year B.


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Matthew 26:14- 27:66

In the past two weeks, I have received news of the deaths of two men who were beloved to me, news that shocked me and caused tears to form immediately in my eyes and in my heart.

One friend was the priest who raised me up to priesthood, who in his sometimes gentle and sometimes gruff ways formed me to be the person and priest I am today. Last Sunday morning, I served at the church where he celebrated for more than two decades, and for the first time I was privileged to sing the Eucharist at the table where he taught me so much. As I sang, I thought of Bob, and I smiled, and later told others, “Now I know why he loved to sing at that table so much – it’s holy.” By the time I finished singing the Eucharist, unbeknownst to me, Bob was in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

Three days later, he was dead.

The other man was a friend who had counseled me through some tough times, advised me through some marvelous times, and who could talk baseball with the best of them. Russ had served as the chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia for more than two decades and was beloved by all in that diocese. Whenever we met, he would stop whatever he was doing, turn his full attention to me, bestow that marvelous Southern gentleman smile upon me, and wrap me a hug. He had cataract surgery two Tuesday mornings ago.

At home, resting up afterwards, he suddenly died.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Bob and Russ since they died. I know who they were in my life, but as I grieve their loss, I am left to wonder who I was in their lives.

This, my friends, is an important question for all of us to contemplate, this question of who we are. Who are we in each other’s lives, in God’s life, in Jesus’ life?

It is an especially important question to ask today, on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, as we move from exultation to devastation, from life to death.

Who are we – who exactly are we – in this Holy Week?

Take a moment and consider:

Who are you in this Holy Week? …

Are you one of the people cheering Jesus on as he rides into Jerusalem, waving palms and throwing your cloak on the ground, pinning all your hopes on this man, proclaiming him the Messiah?

Is that who you are?

Or are you one of those in the crowd five days later, caught up in the bloodlust, screaming in a frenzy, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

Who are you in this Holy Week?

Are you Judas, a faithful disciple – and make no mistake, he was faithful. Jesus called him, Judas followed, and Judas was with Jesus for a substantial portion of his ministry. Judas was there for the miracles and the healings, the preaching and teaching, on the road and in the Temple. He was present at the Last Supper.  And then … he betrayed Jesus … because Judas’ vision of the Messiah blinded him to the vision of the Messiah.

Judas wanted a Messiah all right … but Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Judas wanted.

Is that who you are?

Or are you Simon, now called Peter, the Rock, who like Judas followed Jesus when Jesus came calling, who like Judas sat at table with Jesus and broke bread with him, who like Judas was in the synagogues and on the street, who just like Judas failed Jesus at the most critical moment, and who just like Judas betrayed the Lord …?

Is that who you are?

Perhaps you are Caiaphas, the High Priest, threatened by this upstart, ragged, itinerant preacher, worried that if he continues to preach this scandalous gospel of his, your people might die as a result?

Or maybe you are Pontius Pilate, who is already having a hard time controlling these stubborn Jews who refuse to honor Caesar (for God’s sake, couldn’t they just go along to get along?), worried that if you don’t do something with yet another so-called Messiah, if you don’t satisfy this bloodthirsty crowd, you will lose both your job and your head?

Is that who are you in this Holy Week?

Are you Barabbas, the murderous zealot already condemned to death and suddenly set free, asking no questions, but taking your freedom and running for the hills?

Or are you Simon of Cyrene, the man who came to town to sell merchandise for the high holy days and who suddenly is dragged into this drama and forced to help this man you’ve never met, about whom you know nothing?

Perhaps you are one of the disciples, so committed to the Lord that you gave up everything to follow him everywhere – except to the cross?

Or are you one of the women, risking your very life to stand at the foot of the cross, knowing that Roman law said you, too, could be executed for the crime of simply knowing Jesus?

Maybe that’s who you are!

Maybe you’re one of the thieves crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left, mocking him to the end, because in the end, all three of you are going to die anyway, and you might just as well get in your licks while you can, right?

Or are you one of the Roman soldiers who beat, taunted and crucified yet another unruly Palestinian causing trouble, not caring about who this man is because you are just following orders?

Are you possibly one of the people in the crowd – a chief priest or a scribe or an elder – taunting Jesus because he refuses to save himself, even though he saved so many others?

Is that who you are?

Are you the Roman Centurion and his cohort, feeling the earth move and seeing the rocks split and the tombs come open, and in great terror proclaiming at the last, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Or are you Joseph of Arimathea, helping to take down the body of your beloved Jesus, and laying him your own tomb, wracked with grief because all your hopes have come to an end?

Who are you in this Holy Week?

….

On this Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, in this sacred week of our lives, I can tell you who you are. I can tell you who we are.

Each of us, at some point in our lives, is every single one of the players just named in this incredible drama.

At some point in each of our lives, we have rejoiced and shouted the praises of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest! And at some other point, we have rejected God … or wondered where God was … or cursed God … or betrayed God …

At some point in our lives, we’ve all put our families, our wants, our needs, our desires, our dreams ahead of God. We’ve made God wait and we have presumed to tell God that God is wrong …

The good news is, those given moments? They are not God’s final answer to our question.

Because God’s final answer is this:

We are beloved children of God.

We can be faithful stalwarts one moment and falling-down failures the next, but it won’t change the essence of who we are, the core of our being.

We are God’s beloved.

And God loves us so much … so much … that God not only sent his only begotten son to live with us, God sent his only begotten son to die for us. For each of us. For all of us. That’s God’s final answer to our question of who are we in this Holy Week.

My two friends, who died so recently, Bob and Russ?

They taught me a lot of things. They taught me that I wasn’t always perfect, that I didn’t always do just the right thing, that there were days when I fell down and days when my friendship faltered – but because they loved me, they never gave up on me. They never abandoned me.

The same is true with God, and this week, this Holy week, is the week when God teaches us the same thing.

We will not always be perfect – even the disciples weren’t.

We will not always do the right thing – even the disciples didn’t.

We will fall down – like Caiaphas and Pilate.

We will falter in our faith – like Peter and the frenzied crowds.

But God does not give up on us. God does not abandon us just because we have failed in some way, great or small.

As you try to figure out who you are in this holiest and most important week of your life, remember the lesson that my two friends taught me.

Remember that no matter what role you play – that of faithful follower or brave witness or even miserable betrayer –

Remember:

God already knows the answer to our question:

We are God’s beloved.

Amen.

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse, N.Y., on the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

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