Friday, April 26, 2019

Preacher’s Study – Easter 2C

The Preacher’s Study

Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

D. Jay Koyle and Sarah Sanderson-Doughty

Acts 5.27-32;
Psalm 118.14-29 or Psalm 150; 
Revelation 1.4-8; 
John 20: 19-31

Four years ago, one of us (Sarah) earned a PhD from Vanderbilt. Her stay in Nashville was a rich and cherished time. However, with a few chapters of the dissertation still to complete, she left the area to pastor a congregation in Indiana. Bursaries, scholarships, and loans only take you so far, after all.

A couple years later, writing now complete, Sarah returned to Vanderbilt for her dissertation defense. She sported a shorter hairstyle than when in Nashville, had been working out and was in better shape, and, of course, was dressed in a business suit and heels, quite different apparel than her typical grad school attire.

People who know her well, people who love her, came into the room and walked right past her as if they’d never met her before.  She called to each by name. Each one did a double take, a jaw drop, and then a “run and embrace.” 

She didn’t realize it, but in appearance at least, she had undergone an extreme makeover in the nearly two years since departing Nashville.  

We recalled the incident as we once again took in scene five of that blockbuster sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Watching Peter, we felt something of what Sarah’s student colleagues must have experienced on that defense day.

We are quite familiar with Peter. He features prominently in any version of the Jesus Story, especially those scenes covering the week of Palms to Passion.

Peter blusters with big, brash promises and then runs for cover.  He professes his willingness to die with Jesus until his Lord is a thorn’s distance from death.

However, something is different by the time Acts 5 hits the screen. Peter stands up boldly to the very authorities he claims played a part in Jesus’ death. He bravely disobeys legislation about mixing politics and religion, swearing allegiance to God and God alone.

This is Peter unafraid: extreme makeover, to say the least. 
It’s not just Peter either. All the apostles with him fled, deserted, crumbled when Jesus met his end. Now they’re standing firm together, facing down those with great earthly power, laying claim to greater power, and preaching even when commanded to be silent. 

Extreme makeovers! Peter and the apostles are made over from the inside. They are changed people. New hearts and lives! They have encountered the risen presence of Christ. They have been given, as they make quite plain, the Holy Spirit—God’s own being dwelling inside them. It’s this makeover that has turned them into witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ, who though brutally killed, somehow lives and is exalted, and is on the loose changing lives.  

Extreme makeovers. Changed lives. These are the fruits of walking the Lenten journey and venturing through the Passover waters with Christ. The Great Fifty Days of Easter is prime time for preaching that names such transformation as people today encounter the risen Christ and are gifted with the Spirit.

Of course, preachers must acknowledge the reality that – sometimes with good reason, sometimes not – the notion of lives changing in any substantial way is something many people find hard to swallow. All of us have been issued promises that things will be different from the spouse or parent or child that keeps repeating the same bad behavior.

We perceive a steady stream of politicians that set out to change Washington or Ottawa or City Hall only to end up looking like carbon copies of their predecessors.

We struggle with congregations, perhaps even our own, that want to be vital and grow, but are unwilling to undergo any personal change that might let that happen, or can’t get past the inertia that stymies such renewal.

If we are honest, we can become most cynical about the possibility of change when we look at our own life, when certain habits of heart and mind seem intractable, relentless, permanent.

That’s why preachers need to look around in these Great Fifty Days and lift up the extreme makeovers in our midst – especially the newly baptized – whose changed lives serve as icons of the Paschal Mystery for all of us.

One of us (Jay) remembers speaking of the young person for whom a Maundy Thursday liturgy served as a catalyst for transformation. He was one of those seemingly rare teens who kept “coming to church” on a weekly basis. Still, he felt something was missing in his faith. He perched himself in the back pew and watched as one by one people removed their shoes and made their way to the front to wash one another's feet. Moved to tears, a new insight passed over his lips. “That's it!” he said. “Faith becomes full only when you dare to serve.” He ended inspiring and involving his congregation in his work with homeless individuals in the inner city. Extreme makeovers. Changed lives.

Jay also has spoken of the time a seventeen-year-old stood before the same congregation. It was a Sunday service, one brisk November morning, during the gathering rite of the liturgy. As an inquirer for over a year, the young man had leaned forward in his pew, Sunday after Sunday, marking each sermon’s words with determined attention. As the weeks became months, a growing number of parishioners established a supportive relationship with him, among them some of the other teenagers who uncharacteristically hauled themselves out of bed one Saturday morning a month to load boxes at the food bank, and gathered every other week on Friday evenings for frivolous fun or frank faith-sharing or both. Now, as Advent loomed on the horizon, he was declaring publically his desire to chart a course toward the Font. He asked of the church that he might share with us in hearing God’s word and serving people in need. His request and subsequent passage to baptism yielded renewal not only in him, but also in many others who confessed they did not really realize what we share as church until they “heard that young man ask for it.” Extreme makeovers. Changed lives.

Modern-day Catechumenate pioneer and APLM Council member Robert Brooks tells of a woman he knew in his congregation in Texas. Judy was a catechumen in her late twenties. As part of her catechumenal formation, she joined with others reflecting on the scriptures served up by the lectionary week by week. She also cultivated the practice of Christian service by volunteering in local nursing homes. Quickly, she became so appalled by the conditions she saw in these facilities that she became an advocate for the rights of seniors, testifying before the State legislature and summoning her congregation to take part in what proved to be the successful lobby for reform in the nursing home industry of Texas. As a result, people who would have otherwise been incapacitated or died received a much higher standard of care, and a congregation was called back to the discipleship already theirs through baptism. Extreme makeovers. Changed lives.

As God breathed into the dust of the earth and called forth humanity, so the risen Christ breathes into the dry bones of an unsuspecting church and calls forth a new humanity. Extreme makeovers. Changed lives.

Oh, when we go forth, it is likely people will hardly recognize us at first. Once they do, though, they also will see the risen Christ, the One that gives himself and us for the life of the world.

After many years’ experience as a pastor and professor, Jay serves as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma, and chair of Faith, Worship and Ministry for The Anglican Church of Canada. He is past president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, and is featured regularly as a conference speaker across North America.

Sarah Sanderson-Doughty is Pastor and Head of Staff of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon. She is the author of a recently released book, Words on Being: Sermons 2002-2018, published by Parson’s Porch. Sarah, her husband, Kevin, and their daughter, Caroline, love board games, exploring nature, and sharing great food with people.

“Jesus Appears to Thomas,” by Jacek Andrzej Rossakiewicz (1990)

“When the day of Pentecost came,” by Mark A. Hewitt, pastel pen, 2012

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