I started kindergarten when I was four. As kid number six, I’m sure my mom was thinking that she would like a bit of quiet in the house for the first time in 16 years and she got me into school as soon as she could. Even though I had a November birthday, I met the cut off, by golly, and so I took my place at South River Elementary School.

A sermon based on Acts 1.

What this meant, of course, is that compared to the other kids in the class I was on the smaller size. And what that really meant was that in years to come at good ol’ South River when captains of kick ball teams were choosing up sides, I was almost always one of the last ones picked. Anyone who was a similar-sized kid can describe the inner turmoil of watching others get picked while you were passed over again and again. Additionally, you looked around at the others one remaining and measured your chances of being last, which meant that some team got stuck with you and you weren’t really chosen at all.

I recall those times whenever I read about this choosing of Judas’ replacement that we heard this morning. Mercifully, our lectionary leaves out the verses in which Luke vividly describes the death of Judas, and gets us to the important part of the story, who would be his successor. After Jesus’ Ascension and as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples wanted to be sure they had 12 apostles once more. I think this is partly due to their desire to have the same number of apostles as there were tribes in Israel, and also so that there wouldn’t be this empty spot that reminded them again and again that one of their number had betrayed Jesus. Luke is careful to describe them as “the Eleven” in this intervening time, and so, with the end in mind, the disciples begin their work.

Peter’s the one who comes up with the parameters for their search committee. The person had to be one who had been among them since the baptism of Jesus and through to his Ascension. Of the 120 gathered there with them in that upper room, only two fit the bill: Joseph called Barsabbas who was also known as Justus and Matthias. From 120 to 2 in no time at all.

Compare that with our selection process to get nominees for president. Years before the actual election, people declare their candidacy. They debate on TV and put out position papers. They shake hands and kiss babies and eat at diners with the locals. Over a year goes by before people even begin to vote, and again this is just for choosing the final candidates, and then there’s the general election where it all happens again over the course of 5 or 6 months.

Or think about a search for a rector. It’s nearly a two year process from the time a priest leaves before a new one arrives. First you send out surveys about what people want in their new clergy person. Then there are meetings upon meetings, followed by reading through applications and viewing online sermons. This is followed by interviews over the phone and visits to five or six different parishes where the various candidates serve. Finally you get down to two or three, and they come to visit the parish and meet the vestry and sit down with the bishop. And then finally the vestry votes, and (hopefully) there’s an acceptance to join the parish in a couple of months down the road.

In the case this morning it appears to have taken a day. They wanted someone who had been following Jesus for his entire ministry, and got it down to two. And then they prayed that God, who knows the hearts of all people, would make it clear which one should take Judas’ place. And then Luke tells us they cast lots. They threw dice or drew straws or picked a name out of a hat or had Justus and Matthias engage in “Paper, Rock, and Scissors” to determine the outcome. It sounds completely arbitrary to us, of course, because we want some say in the process, we want to talk about which candidate we think would be best, have them answer some questions, and then cast a deciding vote. But that’s not what happened here.

Casting lots comes up a few times in scripture. The Promised Land of Canaan was distributed to the 12 tribes of Israel by Joshua in this way. Jonah, you may remember, was outed through the casting of lots as the one whose God was angry and summarily cast overboard to stop the raging storm. Jesus’ garments were divided among the soldiers by the casting of lots. It seems to be the choice for deciding things. But for us, no way. We make lists of pros and cons before choosing between two things. We craft questionnaires for candidates. We size up kick ball players on the playground with extreme scrutiny and pick accordingly. If a high school senior said that she choose a specific university after drawing a name out of a hat, we’d be befuddled and wonder what got in to her parents to allow her to make such an important decision in that way.

Which makes me want to ask: what did the 120 gathered back there after Jesus’ Ascension understand that we don’t? Or, maybe, how much do we want to control choices in our own lives when we should be praying a bit more and trusting God in the process? Should we be pulling out the dice more often?

And as the kid who was often the last choice, I wonder too about Justus. He was the unchosen one. The only thing we know about him is that he was the other candidate with Matthias, he was the guy who didn’t know how to pick a straw. But just as interesting to me is that Matthias isn’t ever mentioned in Scripture again either. Both of these men had been there with Jesus from his baptism through to his ascension, both had followed and seen the blind man healed and the 5000 fed. They had heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about the need to pray for one’s enemies and to store up treasure in heaven. They had watched him overturn the tables, and they were there when Lazarus came out of the tomb. Finally, they too had experienced the joy of encountering the Risen Christ. And in spite of all this, neither is heard from again in all of scripture.

But then neither is Thomas or Bartholomew or Simon the Zealot, apostles all. We hear about the big three—Peter, James, and John— in Acts, but the rest seem to fade from the story. So does that mean they didn’t do anything else? 

Next week we’ll read that the 12—now with Matthias included—and the others totaling 120 in all—including Matthias—are all still gathered there in the upper room waiting as Jesus has instructed them. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend on all of them with flames of fire. According to Luke,“They all will be filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other tongues”. All of them. Not a single one left out. They all will be empowered to share the good news of Jesus with the world, and presumably that’s exactly what they all will do in the days that followed. Including Justus and Matthias.

Dr. Barbara Lundblad writes, “Rather than being disappointed by having so little information [about Matthias or Justus], we can be grateful for the witness of those who are so little known.” She goes on to wonder if we can “celebrate the ordinary people who have carried the extraordinary gospel from one generation to the next.” People who may never be named at all when it comes to the histories of a parish like ours, but who have lived faithfully and shared the good news in important ways. The Sunday School teachers who made crafts and helped the kindergartners color a scene from the Bible. People who’ve stepped forward to lead us in prayers. Conversations and concern shared over a pew or during coffee hour. Those who’ve given voice to their faith to a coworker who was needing to know the good news of Jesus. 

Because without Justus and those other 120 gathered who go largely unnamed, you and I likely wouldn’t have heard that good news at all. Without countless nameless people stretching across the centuries, the message about Jesus’ kingdom might never have come to us. Imagine that line of people going back from you to the ones gathered in the upper room. Ponder the faithfulness of all those people. Perhaps we might do better if we were less concerned with how we make important and not so important decisions and instead focused on living our lives as faithful witness to Jesus. God’s Spirit continues to move in and through us, and each one of us, through our ordinary lives, can share that message of hope and love that can ultimately change the world. Just imagine the line of discipleship continuing on through you and reaching untold numbers in generations yet to come. 

God knows the make up of our hearts, and each of us is chosen to proclaim and live the joy of the resurrection in our own unique ways. Let us share that message with zeal and courage with others, just as someone else did that same thing for us. Because in the end, all of us have been chosen by God to give voice to the good news of Jesus.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Image by jhenning from Pixabay

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At a wedding reception for a college friend of Melissa’s a number of years ago, each table was asked to come up with at least one song with the word love in it, and then serenade the happy couple throughout the dinner. There was one catch: no repeats allowed. Within a minute the first group popped up and began singing “All you need is love” by the Beatles. One by one other tables sang too, sometimes mumbling forgotten words, and often out of pitch. Songs like “I had a vision of love” by Mariah Carey or the B-52’s “Love Shack.” Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” got belted out by a diva wannabe. Our table sang “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent” with its “Five Hundred 25 Thousand,600 minutes” refrain. After more tables went and some opted to go again, the remaining people got desperate trying to conjure up songs—this was the pre-smart phone era, so we couldn’t just Google titles online—and so one guy decided to do his best Tom Cruise crooning, “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,” the opening lyrics to “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,” and immediately got booed down by the bride’s family. Oh, we could go on and on, and I suspect some of you may spend the next 10 minutes of my sermon trying to come up with other variations, but you get the idea.

A sermon based on John 15.

Love is not only what makes a Subaru a Subaru, it also comes front and center in Jesus’ words with his disciples as part of his Farewell Address in today’s reading. And that’s a reminder friends, that these words come on the last day of Jesus’ earthly life.  In a couple of hours Judas will be entering from stage left leading a band of soldiers with torches and swords to come and arrest Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane. But before that Jesus tells his closest disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Ponder that for just a moment: as God the Father, God the Source of all things, loves the only begotten Son, so that Son, Jesus, loves you. Gregory of Nazianzus—Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century—described the relationship of the Trinity as a mutual indwelling, as a divine dance. It’s a love that gives all for the other in such a way that the beloved becomes the primary focus. A bond so great, so strong, that the loved and the lover are unable to act without first thinking of the other. A love for which no cost is too great. Jesus tell his disciples, that he loves them like that.

Which is a far cry from the seemingly trite songs like “All you need is love” that we sang.  I mean, yeah, it is all you need, but to be held in such high esteem, to be regarded like God the Father loves and regards Jesus the Word? That’s way beyond pop song love. “Stay in that much stronger bond of love,” Jesus tells them. Abide in that love that Jesus has for his disciples.

Imagine what that would look like in your life. Take just a moment right now, and allow your mind and your heart to dwell in that deep and abiding love of Jesus. A love that comes without expectation or cost and with no hidden agendas. A love that fills you up to know that you don’t have to do anything to earn it. That you don’t need to be perfect, or know everything, or have all the right answers, or be the model person or spouse or parent. Just a strong and abiding love like the one shared in the Godhead for whom love is the very essence. Imagine—and know—that you are loved like that and that Jesus wants you to abide in—to live and remain in—the warmth of that love.

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” Jesus explains. Which might sound a bit troubling because when we hear the word commandments we go to those list of dos and don’ts, of things done and left undone, right? We start seeing the ways in which we miss the mark and fall short. But Jesus himself just prior to these verses has given a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my followers if you love one another.” And then he says it again in a couple of verses down, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” See, that love of Jesus’ that we abide in leads us to love too. It moves us to share the love we experience from God and let it influence how we treat other people, and in that way keep his commandment. 

All of this abiding and commandment-keeping and loving that Jesus desires for us, envisions in us, causes him to utter these words:“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Joy. That’s what this unconditional, all-encompassing love leads us to. That total state of happiness, the emotion of possessing or experiencing what we so strongly desire. Of being fully known and accepted and cherished by the One who created us and all creation. The One who desires nothing more for us than our utter bliss.

Jesus then goes on to fully describe what all of this love means in a concrete and practical way: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And before any of his disciples can start to back away from this sacrificial call, he tells them in no uncertain terms that this is exactly what he is willing to do for them. Jesus looks at his disciples and says that they are no longer just his followers and servants, but that they are indeed his friends. And he is willing to lay down his life for them. 

While they likely don’t see it coming nearly as fast as it does, certainly John’s first audience knows what is about to transpire. By this time the next day, Jesus’ body will have been placed in that new tomb with the stone rolled in front of it, and his friends will be hiding behind locked doors. But these words would be a lifeline for John’s audience at the turn of the first century, the ones who were themselves dealing with intense persecution. They would hear that call to lay down one’s life for one’s friends in a very palpable way, as a call to embody the love of Jesus and save the life of others. They would understand that a love that gives to another, that makes decisions with only the concern of the friend in mind, well, that would be a gift when facing persecution and questioning to expose other Christ followers. They would be laying down their lives for a friend.

And what about us? We live in a world that sees us as consumers, that seeks to cater to our every need and want. We are told again and again that we are the most important individual in the world, that we should seek our own happiness no matter the cost to others. Why put others first? Why endure pain for another? Why would you want to do anything that would hinder your goals for your life? (All of this messaging, by the way, comes from someone simply wanting to earn a buck. The whole enterprise is based on puffing up our egos, so that we end up handing over some of our own resources to them.)

What would it look like if we engaged in a similar exercise as the one our friends did at their wedding, except instead of coming up with songs containing the word love, we imagined practical, joyful ways to love others just as Jesus loves us? You are a tremendously creative group, what sort of outside the box thinking would bubble up in our conversations if we spent a moment of two imagining how best to embody the sacrificial love of Jesus? How might we joyfully offer ourselves—our time, our resources, our gifts—for others? How might we lay down our lives—the lives that our consumeristic society so wants us to coddle—how might we do that for a friend?

So humor me for a moment, like we humored our friends on their wedding; let’s try this for a moment. What might that look like for us today? You don’t have to stand and sing, but what practical, creative ideas might you have about loving one another, about laying your life down for your friends?

Beloved, the power of Jesus’ love has and can continue to change the world. We just have to keep choosing it over our own desires. Our joy will come most fully when we shift the focus of our life to respond and notice and care for others. So let’s keep doing this. Let’s keep thinking creatively of  how we can embody that love of Jesus. Jesus wants us to abide in that love so that we can in turn share that love ourselves. Let’s give of ourselves to others so that our joy might be complete.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

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We read a portion of scripture today from the first letter of John that includes words from one of my favorite hymns—a hymn I want sung at my funeral some day. It’s “I want to walk as a child of the light” and the words from John’s epistle can be found in the chorus, “In him there is no darkness at all.”  The song goes on to say that the night and the day are both alike, and how Christ the Lamb is the light of the city of God. It closes with the request, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” (And if this weren’t “Covidtide,” I’d be asking our organist to play that song for us at the end of the sermon, throwing him an audible call in the middle of the service.)

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You can say whatever you’d like, but reading a gospel text for Easter that doesn’t even have an actual appearance of the risen Jesus is just downright odd. After the events of Good Friday when the body of Jesus had been placed in that new tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ disciples rested on that Sabbath overcome with grief even though it was the Passover feast. They were called to remembered the deliverance of their ancestors from the Egyptians by the hand of God, and also the gift of the Sabbath given at creation. But that rest and remembrance faded to the background as they replayed the events of the last week in their minds and tried to figure out what had really happened. Jesus had spoken about the dream of God—of a beloved community—where the last would be first and the first would be last. He told them stories of an overflowing banquet where those from the streets would be invited in. He healed the sick, and opened the eyes of the blind. He raised a little girl from the dead, and also called his friend Lazarus from the tomb. But now he was dead. And with him that dream of God that he had proclaimed.

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Dark is the only way to describe Good Friday. Cold, raw, bleak, dreary. We hear the account of Jesus’ last 20 hours or so on this planet, and it’s overwhelming. He’s betrayed by a friend, and disowned by another. His countrymen push him off as an outsider, demanding his execution. The judge sees that he’s being set up, but doesn’t intervene. He’s stripped naked, flogged, spit upon, and mocked. He’s forced to carry the means of his execution across his shoulders, the rough hewn wood digging in to his skin. When he gets to the place called The Skull, the soldiers string him up, and then gamble away the remnants of his clothing. As he teeters between life and death, he sees his mother standing nearby taking this all in, and he asks a friend to treat her as his own mother, and that she receive him like her own son. He sips from a sponge saturated with wine just to wet his parched throat, and then he bows his head and dies. Upon closer inspection from his executioners—who can see that he is already dead—they add one last insult and pierce his bare side with a spear. This day is utterly and painfully dark.

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If your house is anything like ours, you’ve got a place for towels, perhaps a linen closet or a spot in the cupboard under the sink.  Of course, we have those towels that we can pull out in a pinch for guests—when we used to have guests, that is—those we’ve deemed nice enough for a guest to dry themselves after washing up. But then we also have those towels that are ratty and torn, strings of fabric hanging off them, perhaps stained in a few places or bleached out in others. We don’t pull those out unless it’s to wipe up a bad spill on the floor or to get mud off the dog’s feet after a long walk. Our towels have been used after a dip in the ocean, or cleaning up after one of the kids had an accident. They’ve come in handy cleaning up spilled milk, or wiping of a forehead after a hard run. They have swaddled babies and have stemmed the flow of blood from a bad cut.

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I often listen to movie soundtracks from large sweeping epics of films as a backdrop to my workdays. Movies like “Legends of the Fall,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Out of Africa,”and “The Mission.” Rarely are there singing voices in the soundtracks I prefer; this allows me to concentrate and focus on writing or contemplating one idea or another. And for the last dozen years or so throughout Lent—and especially as I reflect on and write my Holy Week sermons—I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” I’ve only seen the movie a couple of times, but I know the haunting music that John Williams and Itzhak Perlman co-wrote very well. The way the violin takes center stage throughout many of the pieces, providing movement and giving a depth to the story that both crushes the soul and lifts the heart. 

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One of my favorite musical pieces is Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei Deus” written during the 1630s for use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The text comes from Psalm 51 which we read together today; the title of the work simply comes from the first words of the Psalm in Latin: Have mercy on me, O God. I first heard the “Miserere” during a Lenten retreat for clergy as the facilitator played the 8 minute piece for us. We sat enchanted by the ethereal voices asking God over and over for compassion and loving-kindness, for mercy and forgiveness. I closed my eyes, letting the music wash over me as I thought about my own life, about the times when I had missed the mark. About how much I needed God to blot out my offenses and to create a clean heart within me.

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You used to see them with some regularity in sports stadiums around the country, especially in the area between the goal posts, about halfway up the seats. Anytime one team or the other set up to kick a field goal or an extra point, a guy would hold up a poster emblazoned with phrase “John 3:16.” I often wondered how they got the cash for those seats, if it was just one person or if there was a gang of them. If they coordinated together so that there weren’t two signs in close proximity. The message, of course, is the most famous of Bible references, a verse I bet many of you learned by heart back in your Sunday School days. 

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On a Veteran’s Day a number of years ago now I led a Webelos scout hike in New Hampshire. We were headed up Mt. Waternomee to a B-18 bomber crash site. Five weeks after Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, a pilot  lost his bearings due to inclement weather and poor visibility. He and his crew of six other men flew a couple hundred of miles off course from their destination at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA. Realizing his mistake too late—there were mountains where they weren’t supposed to be—the pilot crashed near Woodstock, NH. Remarkably due to the pilot’s quick thinking, five of the seven crew members survived. They were aided by the people in the area who trekked out in the dark cold night up that mountain to rescue them. Our hike that November day was also cold and damp, and one of our fifth grade scouts expressed his deep yearning for a Starbuck’s drink as his pace slowed to a crawl. 

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