Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, rector. For attributions, please view the PDF version.
You may remember that a week after I started at St. Barnabas’ last June I left for eight days to attend a retreat program for Episcopal clergy. When I got to my room I found a care package that contained among other things a green plastic frog. In case you’re unfamiliar with this symbol (sort of a modern ichthus) F.R.O.G. stands for … “Fully Reliant On God.”
This Annual Meeting day we reflect a bit on where we’ve been, give thanks for the past year, where we’ve come, what we’ve learned, and, in thanksgiving for our friends and companions, we look ahead to where God is calling us to be. And I honestly can’t think of any more helpful texts than the ones we’ve heard this morning.
When I think back, both to the immediate past history that I have shared with you and the longer history that I infer or know second-hand, I see resonating through it today’s Gospel and also the reading from 1 John. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.” And the gospel says “abide in me as I abide in you.” Abiding isn’t just hanging around. It is an active readiness, steadfastness, and patience, trusting that God is here, at work, even, perhaps especially, when the going gets tough or at least when the wait seems unduly long. The Gospel, that wonderful image of the vine reminds us that the life of faith in community is one where we are “Fully reliant on God.” This dependence on God is counter-cultural: our society tends to glorify the achievements of the individual, as if anyone gets anywhere without the help and support from others. “Bearing fruit” in this context is not just about doing things. It is also about habits and patterns of thought. It may be more rightly understood as “manifesting the character of Jesus.”1 This image of the vine and the branches speaks of health, support, connection and life-giving abundance that you have provided for each other in Jesus’ name.
At our celebration of new ministry last November I gave you a burning bush. Burning bushes attract attention, even some voyeurism, and look like they are going up in flames. But when people paused and took a closer look at what was going on here they could see the presence of God in you. In the past year I’ve witnessed that myself here over and over again: being guided by the Holy Spirit; strong lay ministry; active and present pastoral care for each other; opening worship more and more to the presence and voices and unexpected graces of children. Doing more and deeper work in the community. Taking risks. Rich and varied lay-led educational offerings. Continuing to grow deeper in the life of the spirit.
I think you came to see on a deep level that this is your church. That is where the future health of the wider church lies. We are all ministers. I see this especially in your adaptability and willingness to try new things. And the amazing thing is that you didn’t put all that down with a great sigh of relief when a rector came. As is good and right, some people step down and new people step up. If you need evidence for that, just look at the terrific line-up of vestry nominees! What it feels like to me is that we have grown and continue to grow together, to “lean in” to this new ministry together and see where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
People of The Way
Which brings me to this marvelous reading from the Book of Acts. We read from Acts a lot during the weeks of Eastertide. It tells the story of the early church, the decades or so after Jesus’ death when his followers are forming communities around the Mediterranean and seeking to live lives as Jesus’ followers, faithful to his teaching. Their stories tell us a lot about how they saw themselves, what inspired them, what challenged them, what drew them into community. They were “People of the Way.” And as the church – the wider church – finds itself in a new era, we are increasingly turning to these stories of the early church again – before creeds and institutions and prayerbooks or indeed a fixed canon of scripture – to see what they have to teach us. This conversation is very much alive in the church today. How can we once again become “people of the way”?
It’s a strange and wonderful story, almost other-worldly. The Spirit moving in and through it all, people popping and in and out, water appearing in the desert. We have this Ethiopian eunuch, a foreigner, a man mutilated by the forces of power for its own purposes, and because of that, some quite specific language in the book of Deuteronomy (23:1) declares that he is “unclean” and therefore unwelcome in the synagogue. Welcome in the courts of the Queen but not in the courts of God.
Philip, who I read as kind of a “stand-in” character for the church in the world, goes over to him. The Ethiopian is reading from the book of Isaiah, which, I believe we can infer from the text, has set him to wondering whether there just might be some hope for him. Philip asks him “do you understand what you are reading?” and the Ethiopian responds: “how can I, unless someone guides me?” Of course he needs help! We all do. Heaven help us if we get to thinking we’ve got it all figured out. We can’t do this alone. And here, scripture contradicts itself, by one reading exclusive, by another, inclusive. So he invites Philip to get in to the chariot. They look at the passage together, which is about the “suffering servant.” “About whom does the prophet say this?” he asks. That’s a very good question. Scholars have been debating for centuries. And what I think he is really asking is: “Is it for me?” is there room for me here?” “Is God’s mercy wide enough to include me?”
And Philip proclaims the good news of Jesus. I suggest he says something like this “you, my brother, are a beloved child of God, as I am.”
And they travel on a bit together, and then, miraculously, water appears in the desert! For nothing is impossible with God. And the Ethiopian, who now understands who he really is, asks “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” at the beginning of the story he probably would have thought there was a lot that would prevent him. But not now. And so he is baptized. And they part ways. Both go on, rejoicing and proclaiming the good news.
You see how it’s all there! The Holy Spirit breathes and moves through the encounter. The church in the person of Philip is out in the street. Open to the guidance of the spirit, he reaches out to someone on the margins, especially someone who has been subject to religious or biblical exclusion, people victimized by power. He simply extends what we might call a “ministry of presence.” He joins the Ethiopian, asks an open question, and the two people respond to the movement of the Spirit. Scripture is studied and read together and is grounded always in the wide interpretive lens of love and hospitality. And finally this profound sacramental mystery of baptism. Recall that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.”
So it seems to me that this is where we build on our foundation of being “fully reliant on God” and abiding in love. We continually tune our ears and hearts to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our community. We venture out, as a baptized people, we are sent. We see the stranger not as someone to be shunned or avoided but as a gift. We practice radical hospitality, opening ourselves to the encounter, and we too are changed.
And we especially attend to those who are hungry. The poor in spirit, those society would exclude. We continue to read scripture and learn and grow together grounded always in the gospel of love. We do this through our weekly adult ed gatherings, on Sunday morning, in Christian education. We are seekers after wisdom. We encounter God through the mystery of the sacraments, especially our two primary ones, baptism and the Eucharist, where we welcome all to the table. And we all are changed. I think this is one heck of a mission statement.
And so we look forward to a new year with joy, gratitude and anticipation. In the wonderful words of Dag Hammarskjold, “for all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, YES!