Taking on Discipleship

  • May 14, 2019
Image from the Roman catacombs

John 21:1-19

In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus just keeps showing up.

First, Jesus shows up for Mary Magdalene – the first receiver of the good news of the resurrection. Jesus calls Mary by name and tells her: do not hold on to me. Go, tell everyone: I am rising. 

Next, Jesus shows up for ten of the disciples, making his way through a locked door. Jesus shows the disciples his wounds, and says: Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.

A week later, Jesus is back with the disciples in the locked room again. This time, Thomas is there to see and touch him. And Jesus talks to the disciples all about all the folks who are going to come to believe in him, without having seen him.

Finally, in today’s text, Jesus shows up catching fish and serving breakfast. Three times, Jesus asks Simon Peter: do you love me? When Simon Peter says yes, Jesus replies: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

What is Jesus up to, in these post-resurrection visits? Why does he keep showing up? What is he hoping to achieve?

Of all these stories, Jesus’ visit to Mary Magdalene is the shortest and most straightforward. He offers her comfort, and then says: Go, tell everyone: I am rising. And she does. Mary Magdalene goes right away to tell the disciples this news, and then begins to tell lots of other folks. Many sources tell us that Mary Magdalene was not only the first evangelist, but one of the greatest, travelling far and wide to speak to the humble and the great about Jesus.

Jesus’ visits to the disciples, however, don’t seem quite as productive. During his first visit, Jesus says: as God has sent me, so I send you. But the disciples apparently refuse to be sent. A week later, he finds them still in that same locked room.  During this second visit, Jesus talks about all the people who will come to trust in him without ever seeing his wounds. But the disciples aren’t eager to take the hint and go out evangelizing. When Jesus appears for the third time, they’ve gone back to their old profession: fishing. 

So, in this morning’s story, Jesus pulls out all the stops. This carpenter from a landlocked city gets the attention of his disciples by giving them unbelievable fishing advice. They catch so many fish they cannot haul them all in.  Jesus reveals himself as a skilled chef and host, preparing the disciples an amazing breakfast, timed perfectly for their arrival on the beach. Finally, Jesus turns his focus on Simon Peter, perhaps his most enthusiastic follower. This time around, Jesus tries to make himself perfectly clear. Three times, Jesus asks: Do you love me? Three times, Jesus says: If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Peter, Jesus says: put down your net, and go out and start taking care of my people.

The post-resurrection Jesus, it turns out, is quite similar to the pre-resurrection Jesus. Jesus shows up among the people. Jesus shows up with love. And Jesus shows up with an invitation: go out and do something with what you receive from me! Spread the good news about God’s love. Respond to God’s love, by loving one another.  

Somehow, it’s not immediately obvious to the disciples that they’re supposed to do something after the rising of Jesus. This season of Easter is a long, awkward transition for them between following the living Jesus, and getting their act together to begin the church. It may seem clear to us, now, that the disciples were supposed to do something with all they learned from Jesus, and with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But most of us struggle with the same things that they did.

How do we trust and love God deeply enough to do something about it? And what, exactly, are we supposed to be doing? How do we share the good news? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How are we personally called to do it today, if we can find the courage to try?

Jesus shows up from beyond the grave to give advice on this in our scriptures.  And this week, two more of Jesus’ followers passed into the realm of the saints who have an awful lot to offer us as well: wisdom about how to follow Jesus here and now. 

One of them is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans. She was just 37; let’s pray for her family, especially her spouse, Dan, and her two young children. Rachel grew up in an evangelical Christian church. She loved and challenged her tradition, and finally left it to join an Episcopal church. All along the way shared her wisdom, mostly in writing. She leaves behind her several books that we can read. Rachel tells us: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the spirit works. The future’s on the margins.” Rachel tells us, “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead, God wanted to use gay people to teach me how to be a Christian.”

The other leader on my heart who died this past week is Jean Vanier, a theologian and philosopher who founded L’Arche. L’Arche is an international network of residences for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Thanks to Melissa, we’ve built a local relationship with a L’Arche community; we’ve invited them to some of our Sunday Fellowship dances. I’m grateful that Jean got to live a good long life. Jean tells us: “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” Jean tells us, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”

There are so many voices, ancient and new, which have guidance for us about how to go about this mysterious work of discipleship. We are not alone in our discernment. And within this organization of West Concord Union Church, we have another resource to listen to.  

Twenty years ago, in a very different time, but with a few of the same people, this church affirmed an Open and Affirming covenant, expressing our desire to fully welcome a whole variety of people. This covenant includes people of all genders and sexual orientations, which is what the designation “Open and Affirming” is known for within our denomination.  That was controversial enough, at that time. It was a difficult process for this church. And – the statement doesn’t stop there. More than fifteen years before the statement was written, this church had begun explicitly welcoming folks of all abilities, so that is in the statement, too. Also included: age, race, socio-economic status, family configuration, and ethnicity. 

Our Open and Affirming Covenant sets lofty goals. It also expresses the necessity for learning and growth to reach them: and we’re still not there, 20 years later.  We’re still working on becoming more Christ-like in our love for one another. But this is no surprise. The work of love, the work of discipleship, is work we do day by day, imperfectly, and beautifully. The trick is to remember our intention, and to try again.

Let us rededicate ourselves to this covenant, and to the daily work of discipleship, by affirming these words now together. I invite you to rise, in body and spirit.  Take a deep breath, really let these words enter your heart.

Our Open and Affirming Covenant (May 2, 1999)

We, the members of the West Concord Union Church, are called to love one another as God loves us, freely and unconditionally. We further believe that diversity enriches our faith community.

Therefore, we welcome persons of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ethnicity and physical or mental ability into full membership and participation in the body of Christ. We celebrate family in all its diverse forms and honor, support, and bless all loving and committed relationships. As we are one in Christ, we are called to accept and respect one another in the face of our differences. We agree that continued dialogue is necessary as we each grow in learning and understanding.

We commit ourselves to work diligently to end all oppression and discrimination which afflicts God’s people in our society. We seek to explore new ways of affirming our faith in community according to the wisdom of the Gospel. We strive, as individuals, to become more Christ-like in our love for one another.

Amen.

This is Us on SF Sunday!

  • May 8, 2019
Peace scarves for everyone!

Spring Clean-Up

  • May 7, 2019

Thanks to everyone who helped clean up the church and parsonage grounds on May 4th!

Encountering God on the Road

  • April 29, 2019

The youth group ventured out on Sunday for a walk along the river to experience the mysteries of God in nature. Following a reading of the post-resurrection story of Jesus’ revelation on the “Road to Emmaus” (Luke 24:13-35) we wondered together about what sort of sacred signs might we be missing as we journey through our busy lives. Grounded in the following reflection posted on Carrie Newcomer’s “Speed of the Soul” blog, we explored what the woods, the river, and the birds had to offer us.

“Wendell Berry describes the presence of mystery in the world as ‘a bird that calls and waits and calls again’. There is an ever present wholeness that is always resting quietly beneath the clamor. This presence is so faithful that we stop noticing it, in the same way we stop noticing the air we breathe until the wind swifts and the trees lean over in a new direction. What a gift it is to rise from our thoughts and the busy world and sense the ever present wholeness. Today is a good day to practice listening for the quietest thing that moves [in our midst]. It is a good day to notice on a busy street that the people around us are tender and funny, strong and luminous as the sun. Today is a good day to breathe and listen for the bird that calls, pauses, and calls again.”

Easter Celebration!

Thanks to everyone who came together to make our Easter Celebration possible! Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Mother Tree

Luke 24:1-12

The women get up before dawn on that Sunday morning to carry spices to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. Their eyes are swollen. Their step sare slow. Their hearts are heavy.  For Jesus, their friend, so full of holy grace, was tragically killed.  But they get up anyway. His body must be tended to.

The women get up before dawn to carry on, but their grief is interrupted. When they arrive at the tomb, they see that the stone is rolled away. When they go into the tomb, they find it empty. Then two strange, dazzling figures appear, asking: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here, but has risen.”

What does this mean: Jesus has risen?  All kinds of wise people have wondered about this. Did Jesus’ body really rise? If so, was he some kind of zombie?  Was it simply Jesus’ spirit that rose? If so, was he some kind of ghost? Is Jesus’ rising a metaphor, or a miracle? Or is it, possibly, a terrible hoax?

If you have questions about the rising of Jesus: fantastic. Wondering over our sacred stories and interrogating God herself is good and holy work. Asking and doubting will only bring us deeper, and God can take it. I hope you have lots of questions about the rising of Jesus, and let me suggest one in particular: what does it mean? What does this rising that is at the center of our Christian story tell us about God?

It’s a big question. Maybe it will help if we shift for a moment away from Jesus, and talk about plants instead. We’ve been talking a lot about plants this season. We’ve been nurturing our spirits as if they were thirsty seedlings. We’ve been rooting actual plant cuttings in water. On Thursday some among us planted our cuttings in soil, and helped to make the flower gardens of paper and fabric that are all around us.

Plants have a lot to teach us about dying and rising. At this time of year in New England, we can see new life poking up out of the ground everywhere. But the story I want to share today has to do, not with that kind of plant, but with trees.  

At the University of British Columbia there is a Professor of Forest Ecology named Suzanne Simard. After growing up in a family of loggers, and going to forestry school, Dr. Simard became fascinated with what happens in forests, underground. So, she devised a series of experiments to try to find out if trees were somehow connected beneath our feet.  Lots of people thought this idea was ridiculous.

But Dr. Simard did her research, and as it turns out, trees are connected. Not just parent trees and their children; not just trees of the same species; all kinds of different trees. All kinds of different trees are connected, and not just to one or two other trees. One tree might be connected underground to 47 other trees.

These underground tree connections aren’t composed of roots. Instead, they’re made of mycelium: fungal tubes that infiltrate the soil and the roots. The mycelium network allows trees to pass things to each other. Trees share water. Trees share minerals. Trees share hormones. Resources and information pass from tree to tree to tree to tree, back and forth, around and around.

Trees share with each other. They form communities and support each other. And each community is anchored by a few individuals who are particularly well connected. These are called “hub trees” or, more affectionately, “mother trees.”

And here’s the thing that completely blows my mind. When trees near the end of their life, they change the way that they share.  But instead of becoming more isolated, separating themselves; or more dependent, relying on others; they become more generous. Sensing that they will not survive, these trees send their resources out to strengthen the trees around them. While they are dying, they give others life.

Imagine Jesus as a Mother Tree. In his 33 short years, he has become connected to so many people. His disciples, his followers, everyone who he heals, everyone who is changed by his words.  Jesus is a Mother Tree, deeply and widely connected.

Jesus is a Mother Tree, and his life is about to end. And his reaction to this is to give of himself even more generously than he has before. Jesus passes on teachings: “love one another.” Jesus passes on practices: the sharing of bread and cup.  Jesus passes on forgiveness, even to the people who condemn and torture him. Jesus passes on promises. Jesus shares so much that the tragedy of his death becomes more than simply a tragedy.  

Jesus rises: his body, his spirit, and his love. Jesus rises within the lives of the people around him. They are so filled up with the love they receive from him that many of them become Mother Trees themselves: reaching out deep and wide. It starts with Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James spreading the good news; and then Peter joins in; and then everyone else who eventually learns to trust the women. They spread the word about Jesus, who he is, what he teaches, and that he is still with us. Jesus is risen, they say, Jesus is rising. The good news passes on from person to person to person to person, across centuries and continents, until it reaches all the people who brought us here, this morning.

The women rise that morning in grief. We, too, have much to grieve. And we also have the good news of Jesus’ rising, and the electric connection of love that still tingles in the air, more than two thousand years later: a surge that swells in our hearts, a gift from the great network of givers of good news.

Through the grace and power of God, no life is simply extinguished, forgotten, discarded. No tragedy is left untouched by grace.  Instead, there is life even in the midst of death; hope even in the midst of despair; love, stronger and more persistent than the grave.  We are some of the very great many who have the privilege of receiving this good news, and we have the opportunity also to pass it on. I hope you will.

Palm Sunday Introduction

  • April 16, 2019

This day begins with celebration. After years of teaching and healing, of gathering up disciples and traveling around the region, Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem. His followers and the crowds in Jerusalem are filled with joy and anticipation, praising God.

Why are these folks celebrating? What do they anticipate? Perhaps they expect that Jesus will transform the religious institutions of Jerusalem, becoming the new high priest, bringing new energy and inspiration to the faith. Perhaps they expect that Jesus will overthrow Roman rule and become the new King of the Jews, bringing justice to the poor and the oppressed. Such an amazing, spirit-filled leader as Jesus must be destined for some kind of greatness, once he enters into a place of power.

But, as we know, this is not what happens. Just like always, Jesus surprises us. Jesus knows that bringing his witness of the truth of God up against the powers that be isn’t likely to result in any kind of human victory.  Authority resists challenge and change. Supremacy pushes back against revolution, whether spiritual or political. During Holy Week, we watch as person after person, system after system, fails to affirm or protect Jesus.

We may wish that our faith was centered around a different kind of story. A story in which God wins, without any tragedy along the way. But listen for the beauty in this story, the power in this story.  Because if love survived evil back then, it could survive evil now.  If God was with the humble and the broken then, perhaps she is with us, with them, even now. This is a story of great promise exactly because it deals with the most difficult and painful aspects of human life.

So let us listen now, to pieces of this sacred story as it is told in the Gospel of Luke. Instead of triumph, we will hear about controversy, conflict, uncertainty, betrayal, injustice, execution, and grief. Breathe deep, and enter in; there is yet good news, before this story ends.