Sermon given by The Rev. Michael Tanner on May 19, 2019.
Easter 5: “Coming Out Of Heaven”
The word that gets my attention in today’s lessons is “heaven” and its plural “heavens.” The Psalm out-heavens the others in sheer repetition: “Praise the Lord from the heavens …. Praise him, heaven of heavens ….” In Acts, a sheet and a voice come out of heaven. In the Revelation, John sees a “new heaven and a new earth” and a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. There’s no “heaven” in our Gospel, but it does come just a few paragraphs after a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus. It responds to his prayer, “Father, glorify your name.”
Pay close attention to the direction of the heavenly action. It is not heavenward. It is not toward heaven. Our texts aren’t about going to heaven.
The action is earthward. It moves from heaven to earth and humanity. The sheet and the voice come out of heaven, down to a rooftop. Praise proceeds from the heavens, so that all people and all things praise God. A new heaven and a new earth come out of heaven, bringing the dwelling of God to humans.
We may so fixate on heaven that we negate earth, but Scripture does not. God’s movement is toward the creation, toward earth and us, as John writes, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This we call “grace,” that God moves toward us and dwells with us and in us.
We don’t always see grace when the heavens open. What comes out of the heavens fills our screens: torrential rains and floods, violent winds, airliners that plunge to earth. What comes out of the heavens often kills and destroys.
Our lessons, however, point to a gracious opening of the heavens. They remind us that God has been opening the heavens from the first. Since the beginning, the hallelujahs of stars and planets have torn the heavens, resounding to the heart of the deep.
In the Bible, the image of opening heavens heralds momentous events. When a biblical writer draws on this image, monumental change is in the offing. When the heavens open, God is doing something new.
Hence, when God sends word of Christ to the nations, to create of Jew and Gentile one new humanity, the heavens open, and a sheet comes down. When God is ready to inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth, the heavens open, and God’s dwelling descends to the earth. When God takes us from narrow into broad places, the heavens open, and God renews our lives.
God does the monumental, not only at the cosmic or global level but also locally, in the lives of congregations and individuals.
About 35 years ago, the heavens opened, and God recreated Holy Comforter, my parish in Atlanta. As I related last Sunday, it had come to a narrow place, a place of decline and death – not from the narrowness of its members but from the narrowness of the time. Then, the heavens opened, and God let down a sheet full of the most unexpected people, people whom the world rejects and stigmatizes, people who live with mental illness. Who could have imagined that God would resurrect a parish by such a gift? Yet, the parish heard God’s voice, and God began a new work, and the heavens roared with hallelujahs.
Almost 50 years ago, the heavens opened, and God began a new work in me. I was in the most constrained of places – a church that denied the validity of all other expressions of Christian faith and that was busily disallowing the faith of many of its own. Our first impulse on meeting others was not to rejoice in shared faith but to pigeonhole: “Is he one of us?” “What’s her position on ‘the issues’?”
As a young preacher, I strove to convert others to our position, to the “truth.” That can be a dangerous project, for it entails engagement with those who are different and who think differently. It was my undoing. God used my engagement with prospective proselytes to pierce the borders of my narrowness.
One man stands out. I knew him as Brother Yerby. He was a recovering alcoholic. He consented to hear my teaching. His church and mine shared the same tradition but disagreed on a few points and shared no fellowship. For several weeks, he quietly listened to my teaching, never agreeing but never arguing either. Our differences made no difference to him. He loved me anyway, and I felt it. One evening as I made my case, my words hollowed out, and I ceased to believe my arguments. In the face of his undaunted love, my words collapsed, and God did a new thing.
God works some changes in me by changing my theology, but mostly God changes my theology by changing me. God changes me by confronting me with men and women of faith whom I have previously excluded. (That’s a longer list than we have time for.) I experienced the love of Christ in Brother Yerby and could not deny that he too belongs to God, despite our differences. The heavens opened, and the love of God recreated me. Think of Jesus’ words, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
God has worked the most significant changes in my life by bringing me face-to-face with people who have not met my specifications. That, I think, is what Acts is telling us about Peter. Alone on the rooftop, in the unflustered solitude of his prayers, Peter can refuse unclean food for the sake of religious purity and can deny fellowship to those who eat.
Peter does not understand the vision until he stands before the non-Jewish household of Cornelius and witnesses God’s Holy Spirit fall from heaven on men and women whom he has thought beyond the reach of the Gospel. Then God’s words become clear: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Faced with the Holy Spirit in “unclean” Gentiles, Peter’s theology fails, but his faith flourishes. The heavens open, and God begins a new thing.
Theology is important, but theology at its best, is “faith seeking understanding.” Sometimes we get it backwards. We become so certain of our understanding that we confine God’s working to what we understand. We imprison faith within the walls of our understanding and confine ourselves to a narrow place, a place where the heavens no longer open, a place where the God of our understanding does nothing new and where we no longer expect God to do a new thing. Then, faith dies.
If Peter and the early church had clung to their understanding of what is clean and unclean, of who is accepted by God and who is not, you and I would not be here today. The church would have become a narrower and narrower sect. There would be no concept of one new humanity of all peoples, races, and nations, which is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor, weak nor powerful, liberal nor conservative …. For the church to be the church, it must persist in radical openness to God’s work in all people and in all kinds of people.
That is not to say that there is no evil in the world or that humans are not enthralled with evil. It is to say that faith begins with God, who creates all and declares all good. Faith believes that God is always doing a new thing, always making things new. Faith encounters others expecting to find God already at work in them. Faith expects God to open the heavens – to work monumental change, to make new heavens and a new earth – and to do so by confronting the church and the world, you and me, with people we regard as unacceptable, unclean, profane, or just wrong.
Lord Jesus Christ, lay us bare to the One who makes all things new. Amen.
Michael A. Tanner
St Mary of the Hills, Blowing Rock, NC
May 19, 2019
Sermon given by The Rev. Michael Tanner on May 12, 2019.
Easter 4: Good Shepherd Sunday
Today (besides being Mothers’ Day) is Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Sunday, we read the 23rd Psalm and a portion of John 10, but only once every three years do we read Jesus’ words that give this Sunday its name: “I am the good shepherd.”
I am amazed at how compelling we find this image. Few, if any of us, care for sheep or know someone who does, though we have seen sheep in pastures around the High Country. Were it not for the 23rd Psalm, few would have any notion of what it takes to be a good shepherd.
Yet, when we speak of the Good Shepherd, we are wonderfully warmed. We recall the boy David, defending his flock from bear and lion with a slingshot. We imagine Jesus’ returning from the wilderness, one lost lamb across his shoulders.
Like all images, this has its limits, but the work it does, it does powerfully, even in our modern setting.
Well, you might ask, what is the work of this image?
We could say it is an image of delegated accountability. Old Testament writers apply it to political and religious leaders to whom God has entrusted the people. Ezekiel prophesies against false shepherds, who feed themselves but do not feed the sheep. They act as if the sheep belong to them. They covet leadership, not for the care it supplies or the accountability it accepts, but for the power and privilege it entails.
Through Ezekiel, God promises a faithful shepherd, one who feeds God’s sheep with equity. Israel longs for that shepherd, and Jesus declares, “I am he. I am the good shepherd.”
Jesus draws on this image in last Sunday’s Gospel, where he asks Peter, three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter avows his love, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep.” Jesus delegates to Peter – and to all disciples – his duties as Good Shepherd. We see clearly how disciples other than the apostles respond to Jesus’ call in the story of Dorcas. Perhaps she can’t preach like Peter or pray like Paul, but she conveys the love of Jesus by the work of her hands.
The exchange between Jesus and Peter reveals that the root of accountability is love. Jesus, the Word made flesh, feeds his sheep out of love, the love by which he made us, and he calls his delegates to the same love.
We can read this story as Jesus’ answer to Cain’s primeval grasp for a loophole: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus answers, not with words, but with his body.
Today’s lesson from the Revelation adopts the image of shepherd and then breaks it. It promises a shepherd who assuages hunger and thirst, who shelters the flock, and guides them “to springs of the water of life,” but it also turns the image inside out.
Listen: “The lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.”
The lamb will be the shepherd? Really? Maybe a grown sheep could lead the flock to green pastures and flowing streams, but a lamb? Maybe a powerful ram or ewe could protect the flock, but a lamb?
Embedded in the image of shepherd is the exercise of violent power, the coercion of staff and slingshot. Explicit, however, in the image of lamb is weakness, vulnerability. Explicit in this particular image of lamb is vulnerability unto death, for this is the lamb that is slain.
For a lamb to be a shepherd erases coercion and violence from the image. There is no slingshot to slay bear and lion. Indeed, the innumerable flock that worships before the throne have themselves shared the suffering of the lamb. They have come out of a great ordeal and have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. This is not the washing of baptism. This is the bath of blood that befalls those who take up their cross and follow the lamb.
We yearn for a powerful champion; God gives a lamb. We crave security; God gives vulnerability. This is the Paschal mystery – that death yields life, weakness strength, and vulnerability victory – and this brings me to the story of Holy Comforter, the parish I served in Atlanta from 2006 to 2014:
It was founded in 1893 in the heart of the city. For more than 60 years, it remained a white church in white neighborhoods. In 1956, it moved a few miles east to Ormewood Park, its current location.
Soon, the segregation that had preserved Holy Comforter’s whiteness began to unravel. In 1961, Atlanta integrated its schools, and the Diocese integrated its summer youth camp. In ensuing years, white flight decimated Holy Comforter’s membership.
It integrated and survived, but its “down’s” outnumbered its “up’s”. It grew weaker, numerically and financially. In the mid-80’s, Bishop Sims proposed closing it, much to the distress of its few remaining members. First, however, he sent a new priest to give them one more chance to prove the community’s need for the parish. His name was Stan McGraw.
Fr. Stan canvassed the neighborhood, inviting people to church – all manner of people, and people came. They were not, however, people with the financial resources to sustain a parish. They came from nearby group homes.
Group homes are the product of another social change of that era. In the 70’s, mental hospitals began to release thousands of patients. The idea was that people with mental illness should not be confined but should receive care and support in their communities. That’s a really promising idea, if the communities to which people return have been equipped to receive them. Little attention was given, however, to the adequacy of community mental health services or housing. Many wound up on the streets, and homelessness exploded. As you who volunteer in ministries like Hospitality House know, people with mental illness still represent a significant part of our homeless population. Our communities are still poorly equipped to care for these lambs. Many, armed with a small disability check, find their way to group homes, as they did at the beginning of deinstitutionalization. Many remain isolated and neglected, living on the streets.
When Fr. Stan invited people to Holy Comforter, he found plenty of takers in nearby group homes: people who were poor, sick, neglected, and stigmatized. So many came that the Diocese kept Holy Comforter open, as a mission of the Diocese. Soon, these newcomers made up more than half the parish, and the remaining members of the parish embraced them and found ways to address the newcomers’ needs. They literally fed Jesus’ lambs.
In 1997, the parish entered a new phase. Responding to cuts in already inadequate public funding for mental health day programs, it opened the Friendship Center. By the time I was called to Holy Comforter, the Friendship Center was providing meals and enrichment activities, such as art and gardening, to more than 100 participants. Over the years, it enhanced program offerings to include blood sugar and blood pressure monitoring, foot clinics, and an increasing variety of activities focused on supporting recovery.
The people who come Holy Comforter have found our shepherd to be good indeed and good all the time. They have found this as followers of Christ have heeded his call: “Feed my lambs.” The parish has found victory in vulnerability. It has learned this grace, not from our culture of power and wealth, but from poor and powerless people whom God has called into that community, sheep of God’s flock, lambs of God who bear the sin of the world.
Lord Jesus Christ, teach us that your power is made perfect in weakness, and give us grace to follow you on the Paschal path. Amen.
Michael A. Tanner
St Mary of the Hills, Blowing Rock, NC
May 12, 2019
Sermon given by The Rev. Michael Tanner on May 5, 2019.
John’s Gospel may be short on parables, but it’s packed with good stories, detailed and replete with dramatic effect. Today’s Gospel is a prime example. John here relates a resurrection appearance of Jesus that no other Gospel mentions, and it’s extraordinary!
It’s set away from Jerusalem, in Galilee, by the Sea of Tiberius. Simon Peter and six other disciples have gathered there. It’s the location of their lives before Jesus. It’s where they have built their families and made their living.
The action starts with Peter’s saying, “I am going fishing.” Peter is not a hobbyist who fishes for leisure and relaxation. Fishing is his trade. He fished before Jesus; now, he will fish again. The rest say, “We will go with you.”
John doesn’t say why they go fishing, but we may wonder:
Are they hungry? Do they remember that they have families to support? Or, might they be weary of the suspense? Perhaps they seek that ephemeral quality we call “closure”: “Did we really see Jesus in that locked room? Will we see him again? When? What’s next? When will our lives return to normal? What now? We can’t wait forever.”
I have seen this languor of the stunned in hospital rooms as family and friends sit, sometimes for hours, after a death. Staying is unbearable; leaving unimaginable. What I have never seen is what happens after one dead and buried walks into a room alive and walks out again. Sooner or later, we deal with death, but how do we deal with resurrection? Do we just sit around waiting for the next appearance?
They don’t. They go out and get into a boat. They fish all night. They catch nothing. There are no fish for their emptiness.
This is not the first time they fish all night and catch nothing. It happens earlier, in Luke’s stories of Jesus’ early ministry and his call for disciples:
Jesus’ reputation as healer and teacher is ballooning. One day, he stands beside the sea, pressed by the crowd. Two boats sit on the shore, the fishermen washing their nets. Jesus gets into the boat belonging to Simon Peter and bids him put out within earshot of shore. Jesus sits and teaches the crowd. When he finishes, he says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon says they have fished all night without a catch, but he does what Jesus tells him. “When they had done this,” writes Luke, “they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.”
This story from Luke and today’s story differ in several details, but the location and key actors are the same. In both, Jesus instructs them to let down their nets, and in both, the catch is plenteous. In Luke, there are so many fish that the nets begin to break and the boats to sink. In John, there are so many fish that they can barely haul the net ashore, but it does not break. In John, the net is full of large fish, 153 of them.
Both stories move on from the overwhelming catch, and in both, the dialogue is between Peter and Jesus.
In Luke, the rest of the action occurs in the boat. Seeing that it’s beginning to sink, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees and begs, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus responds, “Fear not; from now on you will be catching people.” They bring their boats to shore. They leave everything and follow Jesus.
In John, Peter recognizes that it is Jesus who is their fishing guide. He puts on his clothes and jumps into the water, leaving the rest to haul boat and netful of fish ashore.
There, they find Jesus at a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. “Come, and have breakfast,” he beckons. He will deliver the closure, the guidance, the direction they have lacked, but first they must break their nightlong fast. The future, whatever it holds, comes easier on a full stomach. So, Jesus feeds them, bread and fish. John notes that this is Jesus’ third appearance after his resurrection.
Breakfast over, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He will ask this question again but without the “more-than-these.” Jesus gently alludes to Peter’s bold pronouncement before the cross that, even if all others deny him, he will not: “Peter, do you still think that your love for me is greater than theirs?” But that’s all left unsaid, and Peter simply responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” A second time Jesus asks and Peter answers, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” And a third time, and Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
The exchange is delicate and nuanced, carefully crafted, and its message clear. There is not a word of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus on Good Friday, but all know that it’s in play, and they see what Jesus is doing. He is absolving Peter of the disqualification of denial. The past is past. It does not dictate the future. The resurrection not only restores Jesus to life; it also restores the community of disciples, Peter included, to their mission as fishers of people.
The shift in Jesus’ imagery from fishing to shepherding is significant. His response to Peter is not “Go fish.” It is “Feed/tend my lambs/my sheep.” Jesus sets Peter, and with Peter these other fishermen, and with them the whole body of those who follow Jesus, to being Christ on earth. Let me repeat that: Jesus sets Peter, and with Peter these others, and with them the whole body of those who follow Jesus, to being Christ on earth. The good shepherd is commissioning shepherds for his sheep, his delegates, his vicars on earth, to fill up in their flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the healing of the world.Col 1.24
And who are his sheep? You? Me? Our neighbors? Strangers? Enemies? Yes, and more. Christ’s sheepfold is the world, and all its inhabitants his sheep, for the earth is the Lord’s and all who dwell therein, for the Lord himself is God. He himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. And who are the “we” in this old text. The “we” are everyone whom God has made.
And who are the shepherds? Everyone who, like Peter and the others, follow Jesus.
So, you see, Jesus interrogates not only Peter but also you and me. “Michael/People, do you love me?” – Will we answer? “Yes; Lord, you know that we love you”? – “If you love me, feed my lambs.”
Our Gospel does not end on a note of triumph, with a promise of security and success, as we might expect after the resurrection. It ends with an allusion to the manner of death by which Peter will glorify God.
Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” always sounds a note of risk, of leaving the settled and known, of losing life to gain it. The resurrection does not erase that note of risk. The resurrection does not undo the cross, the cross of Jesus or ours. Rather, the resurrection affirms that “the way of the cross” is “none other than the way of life and peace.” The resurrection reaffirms Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, for even today, two millennia and three Sundays later, there is no Easter without Good Friday. Amen.
Michael A. Tanner
St Mary of the Hills, Blowing Rock, NC
May 5, 2019