Here is the sermon from Sunday, April 30, 2017. The Gospel text was Luke 24: 13-35. Listen here:
On Sunday I was actually working from a full manuscript, which I don’t always do. Here is the manuscript I took into the pulpit–I may have re-ordered some things as I preached it.
Imagine that you have started trying to put together a large jigsaw puzzle at a friend’s house or at a recreation center.
You picked the puzzle out from a large assortment of puzzles and spread the pieces on a table. After putting together the obvious edge pieces, you immediately run into problems.
When you do find pieces that fit together, you can’t figure out how they relate to the picture on the lid of the box. The picture just won’t come together at all. You are getting increasingly frustrated. You have lots of pieces, and little islands of color, but no way of assembling a coherent picture out of them. You have what appear to be trees, but no trees are in the picture, which just shows a grassy lawn. The picture says you should have a puppy’s face, but all you can see are bits of a tiger-striped animal. You are very disappointed in this puzzle—it’s not fun at all.
Then the owner of the puzzle collection comes by and sees your dilemma. After looking at the bits you’ve managed to put together, he goes to the shelf of puzzles and comes back with a different box lid. Somehow the boxes got confused when they were last put away and you’ve been using the wrong picture to try to assemble yours.
Looking at this new picture is very different. Instead of a picture of puppies in a yard, you are actually assembling a scene of wild animals in a jungle. But now that you know that, you can see how the pieces fit together. What was a confusing and frustrating mess of puzzle pieces begins to come together into a clear design.
That is kind of like the situation the disciples in today’s story from Luke found themselves in on the afternoon of the first Easter. As they had come to know Jesus, they had begun to think that he might be the Messiah—but they had certain assumptions about what the Messiah was to look like and do, thanks to what they’d heard in their religious upbringing previously, and what they’d assumed when they’d heard and read Scripture, and what was going on in the world around them.
The picture they had of a Messiah was of a leader who would help unify the people of Israel to fight again the foreign oppressors, the Romans, and throw off their rule, so that God’s people would once again truly be in control of their own destiny and government. So they pictured the Messiah as a combination political and military leader, someone who was strong and focused on marshaling power and force to launch a fight and take over the country. They were very excited and hopeful that years of oppression were about to come to an end.
But when it had come to a conflict between Jesus and the Roman authorities, Jesus hadn’t fought back in any way, much less led his followers in a rebellion. Jesus had ended up detained,convicted of sedition, tortured and killed in a brutal public humiliating way. He certainly didn’t live up to the picture they had of the Messiah. And they were crushed, because they had hoped he was the one to overthrow the Romans and put the people of Israel back in charge.
So they find themselves on a 2-1/2 hour walk home from Jerusalem 3 days later, despondent, accompanied by this stranger who is evidently the only person who doesn’t know what had happened to Jesus, They tell him what happened, and even mention some of the crazy rumors some women in their circle had started that morning about Jesus’ body being missing from its tomb and that he was alive, resurrected from the dead.
And then the stranger begins to have a discussion with them about the bible—things it says about the Messiah that they hadn’t really paid attention to before. Using images from throughout what we would call the Old Testament, He begins to paint a picture of what the Messiah is to do, who he is to be, that is very different from the assumptions the disciples had made and the picture they’d had, the picture Jesus hadn’t lived up to. The stranger demonstrates that the Messiah is to be a suffering servant, not a conquering hero, someone who walks alongside God’s people and helps them actually become the people of compassion and mercy and justice that God has always wanted them to be.
They are so intrigued by what he’s saying that when when they reach their house in Emmaus at dusk they invite him to join them for dinner and to stay overnight, since it’s too late to keep on traveling. They continue the conversation as dinner is served. Then their guest does something very odd—instead of acting like the guest at their table, he suddenly takes the host’s role. He takes some bread in his scarred and wounded hands, and blesses it and breaks it. And in that moment, as his wounded hands offer them blessed and broken bread, all the puzzle pieces suddenly fit together.
They recognize that the teacher with the wounded hands offering them broken bread is actually Jesus—that he is alive, that he’s been resurrected as the women had said. And that he really is the Messiah, the suffering servant described in the Hebrew scriptures, who has overcome the forces of death and hate.
In the moment when they recognize him for who he truly is, he disappears—but now they know who he is, and they run out in to the dangerous night and hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others this amazing good news and rejoin the larger community. All the pieces have come together once they looked at them from the right perspective, and they want to share the beautiful new thing.
And the news travels from disciple to disciple, across miles and then across generations and so wehear their good news—that Jesus is the Messiah and is alive, and that God comes among us not as a conquering powerful ruler but as a compassionate servant, marked with the signs of suffering, a Messiah who walks with the outcast, feeds the hungry, shows mercy to the condemned, heals the sick, encourages the brokenhearted, and shows us, his followers, how to offer ourselves to others just as he offers himself. And that the forces which tried to kill him and overturn this rule of love and mercy have been shown to ultimately be defeated.
Yesterday all the vestry wardens, treasurers and clerks from all the parishes in the diocese—all the senior lay leaders in parishes–were invited to gather for a day of training in the nuts and bolts of parish leadership. The day began with remarks from Bishop Knisely about the role of vestry officers as spiritual leaders of their congregations.
He talked about how we often base our image of what our congregations should be—how we should be putting the pieces of ministry together, what a properly assembled and successful parish “puzzle” looks like — based on a picture from the 1950s. This was when there was an explosion of young families, when prosperity meant that people had time and energy and money to dedicate to community institutions, when civic involvement and religious affiliation were seen as socially positive things, and so churches grew rapidly, Sunday Schools were filled to capacity, and seemingly everyone belonged to a church. There was no need to go out into the community —the community came to the church.
The church had status and influence—theologians were on the cover of Time and Newsweek–and impressive size. The church’s energy could be focused on providing programs and fellowship for all the people inside the church walls. Each church could support multiple clergy and lots of people came forwards for ordination. But actually the 1950s and the 1960s were an exception in the history of this country and the history of the church. Statistically, historically, they were an atypical blip, not the norm, or an indicator of the future.
If we use the 1950s and early 1960s as the picture by which we measure what the church should look like, and try to recreate that, we will be trying to assemble a puzzle using the wrong box lid, the wrong picture, and we will not be successful. Just like the first disciples imagining a messiah who would be a powerful civic leader and ruler, we will be looking for the wrong thing.
Bishop Knisely told the parish wardens,
“Your job is *not* to focus on keeping the church open so it doesn’t close on your watch. Your job is to be a spiritual leader to help your congregation join God in the community doing the work God is already doing there.”
One of the ways we do that at Good Shepherd is through our support of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, which feeds thousands of people here in Pawtucket every year. We support them by monetary contributions from our Outreach funds and our Advent Fund and collections of tangible items, such as those we’ve gathered this Lent—and through our support of Episcopal Charities.
Episcopal Charities is the diocesan organization which helps us sharing our financial blessings with agencies doing the work of feeding and healing and clothing and loving those in need. Every year we are each invited to make a financial contribution to Episcopal Charities. The Episcopal Charities Fund then takes that money and gives it out as grants. One of the agencies which Charities supports is the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, and later in the service we will hear from Adrienne Marchetti who will tell us about their work.
The picture we should be using to assemble the puzzle of our parish ministries is a picture like to that which Jesus painted for Cleopas and his friend as they walked to Emmaus. A church which focuses on meeting the brokenhearted on their journey, a church which offers itself as a blessing, which feeds the hungry, shows compassion and mercy to the outcast, a church which is not ashamed of its scars and isn’t seeking prestige or status, but is rather seeking out the same people God seeks out—the lost, the sick, the outcast—and is joining with God in the work of healing and feeding and loving. That is the picture we aspire to recreate.
Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and shared it, and his disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
O God, open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Christ in all his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives
Here is a transcription of the sermon:
Gardens are interesting and fascinating places. Lots can happen in a garden.
In the musical Hamilton that is all the rage this year, they sing about “the room where it happens.” If the author of the Gospel of John wrote a musical, one song would have to be, “The Garden where it happens,” because the Gospel of John begins at the very beginning, talking about a Garden.
As we heard at Christmas, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life.”
And what everyone who first heard that would have immediately thought of was the story in Genesis, of the Creation, when God crafts all that is, and crafts light and darkness and soil and water into creation, and into the garden of Eden. Life abundant, clear rivers, greenery, animals– what the world looked like when it was totally according to God’s blueprint, with God’s first human creations, Adam and Eve, to tend it—flourishing life, everywhere.
Now, I am not the best gardener. Tending a garden requires patience. It isn’t for those of us who like immediately visible results. People who like to be sure of how things are going all along, and that they really are following the plan, those of us who have trouble trusting that there is a longer-range process set in motion that we need to wait for, do not make the best gardeners. You know how when you have kids, or you’re a teacher, you start some seeds in a cup or in a small pot to show children how growing a plant works? When I was a kid, I’d be the one who would up-end the cup and dump out the soil after just a few days, to see if anything was actually growing yet. Newly planted seeds really don’t like it when you do that, and things don’t tend to grow well when you do that.
How-ever you understand the story of the Garden of Eden–of Adam and Eve, the account of what happened with humanity that got us off track–at its heart, it involved a lack of trust and a lack of patience, and grabbing at something prematurely. Like typical humans, they and we want to get right to the good stuff, to know all there is to know about everything right away, and to short-circuit the process of tending the garden. We want to grab for our own use what is set aside for another. And just as in the garden of Eden, that doesn’t usually work out so well.
So the story of the Gospel John starts in the very first chapter with that very first garden, by allusion.
And then there is another garden in our story–we were just in it on Friday. It is the garden where Jesus went after the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane.
It was a place where he and his disciples often went to pray. On that last night, according to some of the Gospels, Jesus prayed for the strength to do what needed to be done even though he didn’t want to go through with it, even though he, like any human being, was scared. And then his friends fell asleep. And it was in this garden where Jesus, in prayer, was able to be resolute and continue through. And was in that garden where Jesus’s friend and comrade Judas betrayed him.
We have all been in gardens like this one:
Places where it looks like all we hope for is coming crashing down around us;
when our plans seem to be failing;
when we feel at the mercy of bigger systems of powers and politics than we can control;
when our loved ones don’t understand, don’t support us, or are so disappointed in us that they maybe even undermine us;
when we are alone.
And when we are in those gardens, at night, we must decide to keep on walking forwards, even though, in the darkness, we don’t see any way out.
That is what Jesus did in that garden, and it led him to the cross, and suffering, and to death, and to his lifeless body being taken down from the cross. As the Gospel of John recounts the story, “now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in that garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid, and so they laid Jesus there.”
So, this morning, we come to that Garden, the Garden where it happens.
Mary Magdalen sees the opened tomb and runs to get two of the closest disciples. They come, take a look, reach a quick partial understanding, and then go home to keep it to themselves.
That’s typical in the Gospel of John: oftentimes when Jesus does something, the first person to try to describe it, to talk about it, gets it wrong or only partially right. The truth and healing and new life that Jesus brings isn’t something that can be grasped and caught right away.
But Mary Magdalen, unlike the two men who think they know what’s going on and run home– Mary Magdalen sticks around (as the women in John’s Gospel usually do), to wrestle longer and harder with her feelings and the situation.
Suddenly she sees a man there. “Are you the gardener?”
No. Well, no, not in the sense of the hired man responsible for tending that particular cemetery.
Yes, because when he calls her by name, she realizes that this is Jesus, the Lord, the one who brings new life out of death, himself full of new life where she KNEW there had been nothing but death.
The one standing in front of her is the one who created that very first Garden,
and who wills its continuance,
and wills it be re-created and restored,
and set back to rights,
and who has done so,
that very morning,
in that very garden.
So yes, this is Jesus her Lord and teacher, but also the Gardener of all creation.
But our story doesn’t end there, with Jesus and Mary Magdalen. Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I’m ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “
Mary Magdalen goes as commanded, and announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and she tells them that he had said those things to her.
Just as that original garden in Genesis was the epicenter from which all creation and civilization spread, this garden that we hear about this morning is the epicenter from which resurrection and new creation spreads.
Mary Magdalen on that first Easter becomes the Apostle to the Apostles, because she goes and announces to the other apostles, “I have seen the Lord!”
She tells her story of resurrection to others, and then they are able to experience it for themselves. And then they tell others, and they tell others, and so on. Until we get to the story we hear from Acts in which the whole community is ready to hear.
Gardens. A lot can happen in a garden.
You know, we have some gardens here at Good Shepherd.
Years ago someone took a second look at the few feet of land in between our parish hall and the sidewalk. The kind of unused space that’s on every property, the sort of space where you maybe put a bit of ground cover down and then you don’t think much more about it.
But this person was a gardener, and where others just saw simple dirt, he saw potential for generosity and life. And so the Good Shepherd community gardens were created.
We have approximately 20 raised beds that stretch across the back of the parish house and around the corner of our lot. We rent them out every year for a very nominal sum to people in the neighborhood. We had garden sign-ups just a few weeks ago—and almost all of them were spoken for—we have maybe just one left. They’re in high demand.
The gardens are a partnership between the parish and the University of Rhode Island Master Gardeners. We gave out seeds donated by URI. And so now folks are starting to tend and till their plots for this season. By the end of the summer we will once again have an abundance of vegetables and flowers growing and feeding and beautifying multiple families and households.
The URI Master Gardeners are stepping up their involvement this year because they have more volunteers and even have some interns, and so they’re going to have workshops on gardening and a demonstration garden.
As I was praying and mulling over all this garden imagery, it came to me that a demonstration garden is a pretty good metaphor for the Church. We are a demonstration garden.
A demonstration garden is when you plant some plants to show other people who aren’t as skilled at that particular kind of gardening how it works. What it looks like, what techniques to use, to give them a tangible vision of what it can be, if they’re patient and hard-working and take good care of their gardens. And the URI gardeners are going to be there to answer questions and reassure people: “No, really– you can do it this way–or maybe that way. Maybe add more water, or don’t water as much. Here you need to fertilize, or don’t fertilize as much—tips about what it will take for that garden to flourish. They will be sharing their wisdom with those who don’t have quite as much experience yet, telling their stories gardens they’ve had that have done well and about what to watch out for and what to do right.
That is what the Church is. We are a demonstration garden for God. Each of us is a plant, or a planter, at some different stage of gardening. Some of us are very mature and flourishing, some of us are very experienced gardeners, we have lots of beauty and wisdom to share with other people.
Others of us are perhaps seedlings that are planted deep down, and we’re not quite sure if sunlight can really get down there all, or water, or anything. Or we’re novice gardeners or gardeners who have been away from it for a while. And we look at our plot of soil and think “Nothing good can come from this.”
But when someone else comes alongside us and says, “Yes, you’re doing it right, just take a deep breath, new life will come—it will just take a month or two–it will happen. This is what you need to do. I’ll be with you, I’ll help you”—then our gardens flourish.
That is what the church is: each of us coming alongside at different stages of our faith, some of us in very dark places and some of us in very light places. Some of us able to tell the others, “I have seen the Lord!” and share our stories. And all of us being able to come together and grow together, and be a place that in turn feeds others, and is a sign to others of God’s life and abundance—
Of what God wants for God’s creation,
of what God wants God’s creation to be like—
not like the darkness that we sometimes see in the world,
but like a place filled with mutual care and love and support.
A place of great diversity, filled with all different sorts of gardeners and all different sorts of plants in the garden,
all growing together to restore God’s creation to the abundance it had in the very beginning.
The place In which Christ, in that Garden that we heard about in today’s Gospel, gives us the power to bring new life to each of our garden plots.
Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Augsburg, 2003.
Reflection on Zechariah and the two processions: http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-donkey-a-subversive-choice/ (hat-tip to the anonymous author of the weekly Gospel reflections from Christ and St Luke’s Church, Norfolk VA for pointing me here), which is in turn drawing on Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Harper Collins 2007; which is now surely the most quoted source in Episcopal sermons on Palm Sunday.
Note on the graphic: created in Canva in about 10 minutes. Palm photo was free download from Pixabay.
Aside on the mosaic depiction above, which comes from the 12th century and is in Palermo, Italy: notice the way the man has his hands covered w/ his sleeve so he’s not directly touching the unclean corpse, and is covering his nose and mouth because of the stench.