A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
In some places in the church, today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, is known as Ascension Sunday, so called because it is the Sunday following the Feast of the Ascension. Forty days after the Resurrection and ten days before Pentecost, Jesus ascends into heaven. He tells his disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and to teach and baptize all nations. Jesus promises he will come back at the end of the age, when eternity eclipses time. Our gospel reading today does not come from the Ascension, but from the Last Supper. Even so, the sentiment is the same. Jesus is praying to the Father, asking that the disciples (and us) will be strengthened to continue, even in his physical absence.
Jesus’s prayer for the disciples and for the Church is that we would be one, united in him and with one another. It didn’t take long for us to get off track. For example, in Galatians, one of the earliest books in the New Testament, St. Paul is criticizing rival preachers, those who are carrying a different gospel. Already there are divisions among those who follow Jesus. In the Book of Acts, we see similar divisions as those early followers of Jesus wrestle with how Gentiles should be accepted into the community of faith. We see the same thing in first, second, and third John. In these brief letters, we see a church already fracturing, already falling apart because of internal divisions.
The Church, the Body of Christ, is still fractured–indeed, fracturing at this present moment. How many churches are meeting now across this town? Churches divided by history, by theology, by any number of things? We Christians are quick to divide into tribes, into our own teams. We are quick to make the Church into something else. We make it into our group, made for people who think and smell and look and sing and pray and vote like us, instead of striving to be one, united Body of Christ across our many differences.
The Body of Christ, the Church, is diverse. If you can’t be around Christians who look different or sing different or smell different or think different or vote different than you, I have some bad news about heaven. Christians are different. We are diverse. We have different gifts and different points of emphasis, but we are all called to be united in and through and by Christ. We are called to keep Christ at the center. No matter how different we may be; no matter how much we might disagree; we pray together, we sing together, and we follow Christ together.
Our reading from Revelation takes us to the very end of the book, the very end of the Bible. And there we have this ancient prayer of the church: Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. It’s a prayer for Christ’s return, for the second coming and the establishing of the Kingdom of God. But we don’t only mean the Last Day. We pray for Christ to show up at every moment, even now. Come, Lord Jesus, right here and right now. Come among our divisions, among our disagreements. Come when we are tempted to make the Church more about us and our differences than about you and our unity in you. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our divisions, the way we have fractured ourselves into a million pieces. Come, Lord Jesus, and reconcile us, reconnect us, to your heart of love. Come quickly, Lord Jesus; come with your power, your grace, your peace, your joy, your love, your way, and help us to love and serve you first and best and most of all. Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
I wrote this sermon before I left for vacation this past week. I wrote it before Uvalde, Texas. I wrote it before those events that can only be described as demonic: An 18-year old, bullied from day one in school, purchases weapons, easily, with the intent to inflict mass harm on innocents. After shooting his own grandmother, he walks into a classroom of fourth graders. He looks the teacher in the face, says “goodnight,” and shoots her point blank. He turns his attention to the fourth graders in the room, ten and eleven year olds. He repeats this in an adjoining classroom. In the end two teachers dead, nineteen students dead. I wrote this sermon before I heard the first-hand accounts of those students who survived by smearing the blood of their classmates on themselves and playing dead. Before I read accounts of children calling the police begging for help, parents outside begging for help, while the police waited one hour to take action.
And in light of these evil events, I must ask: Do we really want Jesus to come back? For when Christ comes again, he will come to judge the living and the dead. He will judge hearts and nations. We will stand before him and we must give an account of our lives, as individuals and as a nation. Of things done and left undone. And I believe every American will have to stand before him and answer why we let shooting after shooting after shooting happen. Why we have let this issue become so polarized that we cannot even talk about it and compromise is impossible.
Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. But we better get our answers ready. For while this event in Texas is so sad, and heart wrenching, and despairing, and evil, and demonic, it is not shocking. Not after Sandy Hook. Not after the whole litany of school shootings. Not after Columbine on April 20, 1999.
In 1999 I was finishing the second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Clyne, prepared us for something new: a Code Red. I know now this was all in response to Columbine, although I didn’t know that then. As a second grader, 8 years old, I was taught to hide. “Code Red, Code Red,” the intercom said. Mrs. Clyne locked the door to the hallway, which had a huge glass window in it. We turned out the lights as if no one was home. We hid in a closet. Since then we have changed our strategies. Second graders are now taught to be defensive, to throw books and barricade doors, to run if they can, to smear blood on themselves and play dead.
This doesn’t happen elsewhere and it doesn’t have to happen here. I do not pretend to have the answers. I think we all need to be humble enough to admit that none of us has all the answers. I am not going to advocate for a solution or a policy. That is not my job from this pulpit. But it is my job to tell us that this is a moral outrage to God. To tell us that while God holds those poor children and teachers in his arms of mercy, he is fuming in anger at us. Because we as a nation have chosen to do nothing. For 23 years. And that’s a sin.
God fumed in anger when Pharaoh threw babies into the Nile; he fumes now. God fumed in anger when Canaanites sacrificed their children in fire to the false god Molech; he fumes now. God fumed in anger as Herod, desperate to find the baby Jesus, slaughtered the children of Bethlehem; he fumes now.
When God fumes, judgment will come. The Scriptures testify that we will not be able to stand against it. For we, all, are guilty of the sin of doing nothing, of hardening our hearts on this issue, of turning away and ignoring the problem because it’s too difficult and divisive politically, all while our children are slaughtered on the altars of false gods. So on the Day of Judgment, it will be better for us if a millstone were tied around our necks and we were thrown into the sea.
Before we pray Maranatha, come quickly, Lord Jesus, perhaps we need to pray, Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy. We need to pray for forgiveness, wisdom, courage. And for strength to do something, anything, even just a small something, at last.
Today we have candles at the front of the nave. Candles represent the prayers within us, rising up to God and going out into the chaos of the world. In a moment, I will come down and light a candle. I invite you to come down and light one, as well. Light a candle with me, and pray with me. Pray for the dead and pray for their families. Pray for our nation and pray for ourselves. Pray for our schools and all of our children. Pray for mercy, forgiveness, wisdom, courage, and strength. And ask God for help, for grace to let our light shine in this world that needs the love and healing and reconciling power of God now more than ever.
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 22, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus gives this promise in our reading from John. He is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper, and he knows they will need his peace in the coming days. They will not need a cheap peace, the kind the world gives. Cheap peace is here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, they will need abiding peace, the peace of heaven. As St. Paul says, this is the peace of God that passes all understanding, and keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.
Jesus gives his disciples this promise of peace because he knows they will need it. In only a few hours time, he will be betrayed by one of the twelve, hauled off, tortured, and killed. Their hope will be lost as everything they thought they knew is turned upside down. Even after he is resurrected and ascends into heaven, the disciples will need this heavenly peace. They will need to know the peace of God as they are dragged before rulers, thrown into prison, persecuted, and eventually martyred for the cause of Christ. The peace that Christ gives them today will stand the test of all of that. It will last, for it is peace from heaven, peace from God, peace that is everlasting and abiding.
This leads us to state the obvious: having the peace of God does not mean we will never know trouble. Jesus will still go to the cross, and his disciples will be troubled, indeed. The disciples will still be persecuted and killed for preaching in the name of Jesus. We must say, therefore, that the peace of God is not an absence of hardship and trouble, but rather the ability to persevere through hardship and trouble, confident in our Christian hope that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is what St. Paul means in Romans 8 when he writes,
"If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31b, 38-39)
The peace of God does not exempt us from hardship and trouble. That’s just the world we live in. However, the peace of God does give us the strength and confidence to persevere, even in hardship and trouble. The peace of God helps us to hold onto our faith in God and in what Christ Jesus has done for us; to hold onto our hope in God’s power to save, even in the most troubling and difficult times; and to hold onto the love of God that has been shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Like the disciples, we live in a time of trouble. Our hardships are not the same as theirs, but they are still real. We struggle with weakness and loss, with pain and suffering, with despair and shame, with sin and death. All of these things are impossible for us to carry alone. But Christ has come so we do not have to carry those things alone. As he carried his cross from Pilate’s headquarters to Golgotha, he carried all of those things, too. He carried our sin, suffering, shame, and guilt. He even carried our curse of death. The resurrection on the third day confirms that he defeated all of those things on our behalf.
So what are we to do? We give thanks for all that he has done for us. We trust in our salvation because of his life, death, and resurrection. We live in the peace that he gives us: the peace that passes all understanding. And then, we persevere, following Jesus wherever he leads.
A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 15, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
The title of my sermon today is “Love Like a Farmer.” It’s not the best title. It sounds more like a country song than a sermon–or worse, like a five cent harlequin romance novel. But bear with me; you’ll see where I’m going.
Before we get there, though, we need to talk about what today is. Today, on the fifth Sunday of Easter, we are celebrating Rogation Sunday. We haven’t done this as a community before, although I have visited many of your farms and gardens on Rogation days in the last couple of years. Rogation days are an ancient custom of the church, when we set aside a special time to pray for our farmers, our land, our crops, and our communities. At the end of today’s service, before we dive into the pork butts and all that delicious food, we will go outside and we will follow the cross around our property. At each four spots, we will read a passage of scripture and say a prayer, beseeching God to bless our farmers, to watch over our crops, and to give us an abundant harvest for the good of the world. My hope is that our two churches will continue to gather here at St. Peter’s, year after year, to pray these prayers together.
These Rogation days were once rather common. One of my favorite poets, who was also a priest in the Church of England, is George Herbert. Herbert was the priest at a small rural parish like this one in the 1600s. He writes that “[the Country Priest] loves [Rogation] Procession, and maintains it, because there [is] contained therein [...] a blessing of God for the fruits of the field.” As you can see, Rogation days go way back. Over time, however, the Church got away from a regular Rogation celebration. As folks moved off the farm and into the city, the old customs and agricultural prayers were forgotten, even though they are still in our prayer book. We can’t do that here. Other parts of the country may have forgotten about rural America, but we cannot. We have chosen to live here. Many of you have chosen to work the land; for some of you, the very land passed down to you from generation to generation as an inheritance. You have chosen the hard work of agriculture, the work that Adam undertook in Genesis, the work of toil in the soil. If I’ve learned anything over the last three years as your priest, I’ve learned that your work is hard and honest, and that you truly rely on the Providence of God from seedtime to harvest. That means your work is holy. God bless you for it.
Our readings today don’t seem to have a lot to do with growing crops or blessing fields. The psalm is about how all of creation praises God, and that includes our soybeans, corn, and rice. They praise God in their growing. But other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection to agriculture work.
That brings me back to my title, “Love Like a Farmer.” It is inspired from today’s gospel passage. Our passage comes from the Last Supper, just after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet. He comes back to the table, and he gives them a new commandment. “Love one another,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Our world doesn’t know much about love. We equate it with a warm fuzzy feeling we have while we are holding our beloved. We think of love as those butterflies we get in our stomach at the homecoming dance. In short, we think of love as an emotion.
Love can have an emotional element. We often feel love that way. Think of your wedding day, or when you first held your child, or when as a child you ran and jumped into your parent’s outstretched arms. All of those are emotional things; we feel love. The problem comes, however, when we stop there. When we say that love is just a feeling. If we stop there, what Jesus says today is shallow and vague. “Love one another,” he says. We can think he wants us to have warm, fuzzy feelings in our hearts when we’re around one another.
But that’s not what Jesus means. Jesus is talking about something deeper. Jesus is talking about love as a decision–a decision to show up for one another, to fight for one another, to sacrifice for one another, to lay down everything for one another. That’s the type of love Jesus showed us. For Jesus, love is a concrete action: It’s washing feet; it’s hanging out with the outcasts and sinners; it’s forgiving someone when they’ve hurt us; it’s laying down our lives so that someone else can live.
Farmers are called to love like that. They love the earth. They must take care of their land; make sure it has what it needs to grow; pay attention to the health and composition of the soil; think about how what they do today will impact the farmers who are caring for this land in 100 years. That’s love–real, concrete love.
They have to love their neighbor. They love the neighboring farmer–not their competitor, but their neighbor. When they’re in trouble, they show up to help in whatever way they can. I’ve seen it happen, and so have you. Farmers also love people they haven’t even met, working hard so that people everywhere will have something to eat, so they don’t go to bed hungry. That’s love–real, concrete love.
And in doing all of that, they love God. Not abstractly, but concretely. Caring for God’s creation. Caring for their neighbor and the total stranger they will feed. That’s holy work. That’s what it means to love like a farmer.
In whatever we do, whether we farm or work in an office or work on the road or build houses or volunteer or spend some well-earned time in retirement, Jesus tells us we must love. We must love concretely, with actions. We must love the world God has made and care for it. We must love our neighbors as ourselves and care for them. In doing so, we love God.
Love concretely. Love like a farmer. Because loving like that makes our work and our entire lives holy, offerings to God.
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2022 - Mother's Day
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We know these words from Psalm 23. Attributed to King David, himself a shepherd at the beginning of his life, this image of a shepherd continues to enliven our imaginations and teach us about who God is and what God is like. Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, says in our reading from John, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Granted, we don’t know a lot of shepherds today. We don’t have them in our world in the same way they were in Jesus’s world. Shepherds were often a metaphor for kings. Shepherds were overseers, watching over and caring compassionately for the sheep, or the people. And yet, even with this princely association, they were despised, held at arms’ length, rejected and excluded and marginalized and kept in their place. The shepherds at Jesus’s birth, smelly and lowly as they were, were not welcome in royal palaces.
David knows this negative side when he calls the LORD his shepherd. But he calls God a shepherd anyway, because God, like a shepherd, gives himself, cares for the sheep, sacrifices his very body if necessary. Jesus, also, leans into this metaphor, knowing full well both sides of this shepherd image–the good and princely, the bad and despised. But he calls himself the Good Shepherd, the watchman, the protector when enemies are around, the provider in the valley of death, the One who leads us to what we need for life, the compassionate One who lays down his life and gives up everything for the sake of the flock, the Church, us.
Shepherds: both princely and despised. It’s a powerful contrast. Christ the King is mocked as a criminal. The Sacred Head is sore wounded with grief and pain weighed down. The Word who calls creation into being is rejected by that very creation. The Good Shepherd, the pinnacle of princely images, is despised, marginalized, cast out, slaughtered.
Today in the secular calendar, we commemorate Mother’s Day. It’s not a church feast, but it’s a good day to give thanks for and celebrate the mothers in our lives. Mothers of all kinds: biological, adoptive, foster, emotional, spiritual. It is also a day to remember and care for those who desire to become mothers or who cannot become biological mothers. We remember and support those who have difficult relationships with their mothers or their children. We remember mothers who have lost a child, and children who have lost their mothers. For all of these, this day can be supremely painful. If that’s you, I hope you’ll hear this: God loves you, and so do we.
On this Mother’s Day, I wonder if something from what I have said about shepherds sounds familiar. I cannot help but to see some parallels. On this day of all days, motherhood is extolled as a princely estate, a pinnacle of human vocation. And while not all mothers are good, if you had a good mother, you can identify with that. Mothers give of themselves wholly. Indeed, they give of their very bodies to give life, sacrificing who they are, sometimes painfully, for another.
I was once at a lecture with a renowned theologian, a very learned, wise, and holy man. During the Q&A, he noted something along the lines of how mysterious it was that God would sacrifice himself, his very life, his very body, in Christ Jesus, and all for us. A profound theological thought. Later, I heard a classmate of mine, at the time nursing her child, respond. It didn’t seem so mysterious to her. She was, after all, sacrificing her very body for the life of this infant. What was perhaps mysterious for the theologian was natural to this mother-priest. Perhaps that is why some say, if you want to know more about the love of God, look at the love of a mother for her children.
This insight was also shared by St. Julian of Norwich, an English mystic and the first woman to publish a book in the English language. In her Song of True Motherhood, she said this:
God chose to be our mother in all things
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humbly and most pure, in the Virgin’s womb.
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
- Julian of Norwich, "A Song of True Motherhood" (EOW 1, 40)
And yet, just as with shepherds, mothers, this pinnacle image of goodness and nurturing love, can be vilified, marginalized, despised, cast out. As with shepherds, mothers receive both messages. Consider how women are sometimes ridiculed for nursing their children in public. Or take, for instance, my own mother. When I was a toddler, we took a trip on a Greyhound bus. I was fussy, as you might expect a toddler to be on a bus or, indeed, anywhere. After about an hour, another woman on the bus rushed forward, grabbed mother by the arm, and shouted, “Get that baby to shut up! Mothers these days don’t know what they’re doing!” Something embedded in the bedrock of our society gave that woman permission to do that–to approach another woman struggling with a toddler in the middle of the night on a bus, not to offer help, but to accost her. Not one passenger said a thing.
Side bar: If I ever hear of something like that happening in this church, we’re going to have a problem. This church belongs to our youngest members just as much as it belongs to you or me. And if they want to praise God by making some noise, we had better not stop them. I hope we can all be like Bebe Townsend, who reportedly said to Leah Carter while she was trying to sootheFinley, then an upset infant, “That baby is not bothering anyone.”
If you want to know what the love of God is like, look at the love of a good mother. Look at her compassion, her care, her selflessness, the way she won’t give up on her children. Look at how she sacrifices herself, her very body, to feed her children, to protect her children, to help her children grow. Christ, the Good Shepherd, is also like a mother. Jesus gives us himself, sacrifices everything, to redeem us and to feed our souls: This is my Body, this is my Blood. Do this in remembrance of me. And all because of love–a mysterious yet natural love. As Julian of Norwich said, “Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care.”
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