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Sixth Sunday in Easter, Year A

Dear all,

If you haven't read my message to my readers on how you can support this site, please do. I'm very grateful to those who have responded. And don't forget that you can request a feature for this site or a new service you'd like to see me offer, or weigh in on features and services being contemplated. Thank you again for your readership, encouragement, and support!

And now to this Sunday's texts ...

Isaiah 41:17-20 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 148
- link to BCP text
1 Peter 3:8-18
- link to NRSV text 
John 15:1-8
- link to NRSV text

One of the questions for small group discussion in the first session of Connect, a six-week course I developed with the Rev. John de Beer that uses the liturgy of the Eucharist as a framework to explore Christian faith, goes like this:

Have you ever had that experience of feeling welcomed unconditionally? What was that like?

An experience that always comes to mind when I think about that question was my time in Kenya, where I found an amazingly high value placed on hospitality. In remote places in the bush there, a traveler coming across a family dwelling might have a conversation like this:

Traveler: Hello! I am a visitor. May I stay with you?
Householder: Can you work in the garden?
Traveler: Yes.
Householder: How many months would you like to stay?

And the traveler would be welcomed in for a feast with whatever was available that night, and would stay for the duration named.

Can you imagine a conversation like that happening between two complete strangers in an American suburb? The image always gets a laugh when I use it in a sermon or presentation. But from what I gathered, such conversations weren't particularly unusual in Kenya.

I imagine that's partly because of a combination of two things:

First, in the Kenyan bush, everyone is aware of the dangers  a traveler on his or her own could face in the open at night. Second, householders know that when they need to journey across a long stretch of bush, they will face the same vulnerabilities, and will be just as dependent upon the generosity of those they meet.

I thought of that again when I read the gospel appointed for Sunday, and about its vivid imagery for abiding in Jesus as Vine, us as branches. It's a rich image. Branches depend upon the vine for their very life. The vine provides all their nourishment, and a healthy vine holds nothing back. It's an image of profound closeness as well as interdependence, and like Paul's favorite metaphor (well, perhaps tied with the metaphor implied by his language of Christians as sisters and brothers) for our relationships as the Church -- that of one Body, with Christ as its head -- it suggests a relationship that couldn't be closer or fuller.

The community that produced the Gospel of John had a strong sense of the absolute necessity of abiding in Jesus and of the closeness of that relationship. I think that their experience of that came in part from another experience they shared as a community:

They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.
    -- John 16:2

This persecution didn't come without cause, nor was it a simple matter of disagreement about theology. It came because Jesus' followers were living as Jesus lived and lives. It came because living as Jesus lives has the potential to transform the world, and because those who benefit from the order of the world as it is quite wisely understand that this is a threat to their privilege.

Where will the kings of this world if their armies decide to turn the other cheek and love their enemies? Where will the tycoons be if the world starts measuring a person's worth by how humbly they serve, rather than by how much of and what kind they can consume? Where will those whose power comes from spreading fear of the other when our communities decide to embrace the perfect love, that casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?

Our gospel reading for this Sunday stops at verse 8 of chapter 15. But if we want to understand the energy behind the eight verses we read this Sunday, we'll need to read at least the rest of the chapter, and see the fires of persecution that John's community saw. It's at least as true in justice-making and as it is in teaching or psychotherapy: the work starts where the resistance starts. If we're not encountering any resistance, then we have to ask ourselves whether we've confused the Gospel of Jesus with our culture's rules for respectability. John's community knew it. Israel's exiles hearing God's prophetic word to them in Isaiah knew it. The community that produced 1 Peter knew it. The new life that God brings comes in the midst of powers that are hostile to it.

Not much of a sales pitch, is it: "Come, and be hated, reviled and persecuted!" When we walk into a church and see a cross, that should, if nothing else, cause is to ask whether any ride is worth that price of admission.

But there is something else, something that transformed the Cross from an instrument of fear for rulers to control rebels and prophets into the means of our salvation. And that's Jesus. Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, draws all people to him. Jesus, who loved even his persecutors to the end, shows us that resurrection, not persecution, is the final word. That new life is already flowing through the Vine to the branches, bearing the fruit of the Spirit as a sign given to and for the world. The power and peace of that new life is almost beyond description, but for now, for this Sunday, we have John's description of the life of the risen Body of Christ in the world.

"I am the vine; you are the branches." We know that best when we're living out the Good News in the places most in need of transformation, and most likely to pose resistance. We know that most deeply when we need it most profoundly. And when we are in that place where fires threaten, we do need need to fear. We abide in Christ, and in that relationship, we find new life in where others see only pain; we experience that rush of refreshment and joy that inspired the psalmist:

He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
Hallelujah!
   -- Psalm 148:14

Thanks be to God!

April 26, 2005 in 1 Peter, Easter, Isaiah, John, Justice, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

a message to my readers

I started blogging on the lectionary in December of 2003. I thought that there might be a couple dozen parishioners in the congregation where I worked whose work schedules wouldn't allow them to attend an in-person Bible study, but who would read such a blog as a way of helping them study and understand the Bible during the week. Thirty readers a week was my target.

Sixteen months and 100,000 hits later, a great deal has changed. With your encouragement, SarahLaughed.net has become a first stop or regular source each week for hundreds of clergy seeking inspiration for sermons, and a popular site for layfolk from Vancouver to New Zealand, including military members abroad, who want to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" (BCP, p. 236) the scriptures.

Some things have changed for me personally too. Many of you rejoiced with me in October when the Diocese of Maryland affirmed my vocation to the priesthood, naming me as a postulant for Holy Orders. The spiritual discipline of blogging the lectionary each week has improved my preaching and writing a great deal. And now when I travel or check my email, I'm often greeted enthusiastically by a friend I've never met, someone who knows me through their regular reading of Sarahlaughed.net reflections.

All of this has been a great encouragement to me in my walk with Christ and my ministry in the church and the world. I'm excited about helping even more clergy and layfolk grapple with the difficult issues and differing strands of thought in scripture. I'm committed to furthering biblical literacy and enthusiasm on as wide a scale as possible, and I always rejoice to see an email like this one, which I got in February and keep in an email folder labeled "encouraging words":

I have been so deeply moved by your web blog that I feel in love again with the scriptures! I so enjoy your way of looking into the deeper story of the gospel, and your ability to tell the story with such clarity. While my sermons are still my own, I have to give you credit for your direction in helping me with my thoughts. I have been an Episcopal priest for 21 years and I do not know of any better source for inspiration than your commentary.

Such wonderfully kind messages of support from you all, along with the spiritual growth I've experienced writing on the readings each week, make blogging the lectionary a profoundly rewarding experience for me, and one I want to continue for years to come. Indeed, I'd like to do even more. I'd like to make myself more available to answer emails and facilitate discussion among people wrestling with these texts and seeking to live and proclaim Good News to their communities. I'd like to offer my reflections with greater lead time, and on a more reliable schedule. I'd like to find more ways to be more helpful to you all.

And I find myself at a point in my career where that might be possible. The parish I work for hasn't been receiving the amount of pledges they'd hoped for, so the vestry is discussing eliminating my position. I'm taking this as a potential nudge from the Holy Spirit to step out in ministry in new ways, potentially expanding SarahLaughed.net to offer even more online and in-person services. Here's what I'm thinking.

If everyone who read the lectionary blog every week contributed about a dollar a week -- about $50 a year -- I could live on that, freeing me up for all kinds of ministries which full-time employment in a parish sixty miles away doesn't allow, including implementing every feasible feature requested by readers. For those with enough in continuing education or discretionary accounts, that wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Of course, a lot of folks who use the blog are seminarians or non-stipendiary priests who have little money to spare, and won't be able to contribute. And some of those who use the blog belong to a parish or diocese with enough resources to contribute significantly more, and also with unmet needs in areas in which I've got skills. So I'd like to propose this:

The lectionary blog will remain freely accessible to all. Period (i.e., full stop). I feel strongly about the Church's providing quality resources for study and formation for everyone who wants them, and I see doing this site for as along as I'm able as a part of my baptismal and priestly ministry. And if there are enough contributions to SarahLaughed to support me full-time, everything else I describe below will be free or offered on a sliding scale to every organization that has need.

Any donation will help. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and if enough people send what they'd spend on a tall cappuccino, I might be able to make my mortgage payment even while devoting myself full-time to ministry. You can also support this site by shopping at Amazon.com if you get there by clicking on a link from SarahLaughed.net, even if you're buying an item I didn't specifically recommend, or by getting Toddy coffee products (which I really do love -- best coffee I've ever had!) by clicking on the Toddy ad on this page (and you get 10% off too -- how cool is that?). If what you want to donate is prayers for me and my ministry, I'll be glad about that too.

If you're a regular reader of the blog, please consider pledging $50 a year -- about a dollar a week -- to support the site. Your generosity will be helping to support not only the ministry that SarahLaughed.net has in the church, but also the ministry I'm engaged in of outreach to unchurched and those who have drifted away from the church in my generation.

If you can afford to contribute $100 in a year, you could become a Sponsoring Member, helping to support the site on your own behalf and on behalf of a seminarian, a non-stipendiary priest, or someone else who can't afford to contribute, and those who give at this level or above are eligible to be listed in a new "featured links" section on all pages of SarahLaughed.net.

If you can contribute $300 in a year, you can become a Philippians 4 Member (so named after the generous support the church at Philippi gave to St. Paul's ministry, as described in Philippians 4:15-20). Perhaps you've got unused continuing education funds that could help me free up more time for things like starting an email list where I could participate actively in discussions around questions like "This Sunday is Youth Sunday, and the gospel in the lectionary is the 'little apocalypse' from Mark 13. Is there any way I can be true to both the theme of the day and the message of this passage?" I could help you put together a retreat for youth or adults, or a plan for a Lenten class or a dialogue around a difficult issue in the church.

If you belong to a parish, diocese, or other organization with the means to help sponsor the site for others, a $500 contribution per year will make you a Sponsoring Organization, and not only will I be grateful for your support, but I will be happy to visit you yearly to preach on a Sunday morning and speak at a forum or event following services (no honorarium necessary -- just expenses). If you've got an event of conference you want prominently displayed in the "featured links" section, I'll also be happy to do that.

And for my heroes, the Barnabas Circle members, who as an organization or individual contribute $1000 in a year, I'd love to talk with you about how I can be most helpful to you. I could help with distance learning for clergy and/or laity, do an overnight retreat, a conference or convention, or extended continuing education event, or consult with you in any field in which I have expertise.

That's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking that it's got to be possible, given the number of people who make use of what they see here and who write for extra help with issues they and their congregation face, for me to free myself up to help you in your ministry. God's people get together, and mission happens. How does that sound to you?

Let me know what you think. Keep the emails coming, and please also think about making a contribution via credit card or PayPal account by clicking on that 'Make a Donation' button at the top of the right-hand sidebar. For those who would prefer to send a check, I'll provide a mailing address soon.

Note added April 25, 2005: I've now got a P.O. Box. If you'd prefer to donate via snailmail, please make checks payable to Sarah Dylan Breuer, and send them to:

Sarah Dylan Breuer
P.O. Box 3055
Frederick, MD 21701-3055
U.S.A.

Thanks for reading, encouraging, praying, and supporting this site as you're able.

Blessings,

Dylan
____________________
Sarah Dylan Breuer
lectionary blogger

April 23, 2005 in Support This Site | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A

1 Peter 2:1-10 - link to NRSV text
John 14:1-14 - link to NRSV text

I had an evangelical conversation experience of accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior when I was thirteen, and 1 Peter 2 played a significant role in my sense of what that experience was about. I was a pretty morose teenager; I wanted to think that things, that my life, MEAN something, were a part of something larger, and I really wasn't seeing what that something larger could be. 1 Peter 2 didn't give me very specific content about what that was either, but when I read that text at age thirteen, I got a sense that there was something bigger, something I could be a part of, something that would not only give me a sense of belonging, but a sense of meaning -- a sense of calling.

My sense of what that calling is and what it means has -- thank God! -- changed and deepened a great deal. When I was thirteen, I don't think I knew much about Jesus and what Jesus was about beyond that Jesus was calling me. But the more I understand about what Jesus' own work among us was and is, the more I understand the meaning of that call to follow Jesus, to be part of the Temple that has him as its cornerstone. My sense of my own call is embedded in my sense of what Jesus' call is. That's a very challenging and occasionally costly call, but there's a huge payoff: when my sense of call is most deeply embedded in Jesus' mission, then my sense of my identity flows more deeply from the identity I have in Christ.

And Jesus' sense of his own identity flowed completely out of his sense of God's identity. Who do you think God is, really? What is God most concerned about? And what does your life say about that? Here's the radical claim that Jesus made on the subject:

God looks like Jesus. God acts like Jesus. God is concerned about the things that Jesus' followers saw his actions address, all the way up to the Cross.

So what's God like? God is like Jesus, who will sit down with five thousand strangers -- prostitutes and Pharisees, Greeks and Jews, peasants and priests -- to share a meal handed from hand to hand, with no opportunities to check the purity of the kitchen where the bread was baked or the cleanness of the countless pairs of hands that got the food to you. God is like Jesus, who was reviled, persecuted, tortured, and executed, and yet spoke words of forgivenesss to his tormentors. God is like Jesus, who taught us that the kingdom of God would be ushered in not with the political and military muscle of kings and generals, but quietly raised from mustard seeds of touching the unclean, feeding the hungry, healing those bound by disease, inviting the outcast, reconciling enemies.

Even today, and even in many churches, that's a radical view of who God is and how God acts. I'd like to think that Christians' dreams of the future are more like The End of Poverty than like Left Behind. Anxiety and fireworks usually sell better, though.

Why is that? What would happen if we really took to heart Jesus' words, "believe in God" -- the God Jesus proclaimed -- and "believe also in me"? What would happen if we believed Jesus' message that the time of fulfilment for scriptures proclaiming good news to the poor, release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of jubilee has come? What would happen if we believed that Jesus sent to come upon us the same Spirit which empowered him to feed the hungry, heal the sick, prophesy to the powerful, and proclaim God's kingdom? What if our lives proclaimed a God who is at work in the world as Jesus' followers saw him at work among them?

For starters, our age of anxiety might finally be able to take in Jesus' exhortation, "do not let your hearts be troubled." When everybody wins, the rats can stop racing. There's no sense in suing for property or privilege when the year of jubliee is at hand. The God who created the universe is at work in Christ, the Christ in whom we abide. God's kingdom, God's dream, is no fantasy; it's the most fundamental of realities.

If we believe Jesus, then we can stop saying "no way!" and live into the reality of Jesus the Way, until everyone God made and loves can tell the story of God's people as their own:

Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.
   (1 Peter 2:10; Hosea 1:10, 2:23)

Thanks be to God!

April 18, 2005 in 1 Peter, Easter, Eschatology, John, Justice, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Psalm 23 - link to BCP text
John 10:1-10 - link to NRSV text

If you haven't seen it before, you might want to check out my entry from last year, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine (or Why It's Probably a Good Thing that Sheep Don't Talk)" for one take on what kind of a shepherd Jesus is and how much that often contrasts with our own peer-shepherding.

The Lord is my shepherd.

For a lot of us urbanites, that doesn't have a lot of content, aside from that shepherds are people who take care of sheep. We have little idea what's involved in that. Personally, when I hear the word "shepherd," the image that comes to my mind immediately is what the children look like when dressed as shepherds in the Christmas pageant -- well-scrubbed and adorable figures with dish towels on their heads and clad in striped bathrobes who often need a fair amount of shepherding themselves to get on and off stage at the right points. In other words, the picture that comes to my mind doesn't have a whole lot to do with what Jesus is talking about here.

Shepherds had a hard life, since they faced all of the hardships of the hostile landscape through which they herded their sheep. Being with the flock, they faced all of the dangers and difficulties that the flock faced, and they were just as vulnerable -- to heat in the day, to cold at night, and to human and animal predators at all times. They slept with their flocks on nights when there were few enough predators for them to sleep at all; they were seen as poor prospects as husbands and fathers, since they had to leave their families alone and vulnerable at night as well.

That's the kind of life Jesus lives for and with us. Jesus journeys with the most vulnerable, and takes on all of their vulnerability. He knows what it's like to be out in the cold. He knows what he's saying when he calls people to leave their homes and villages, and even their families, since he had done the same himself. He knows what it's like to have people think that you're crazy or irresponsible because of what you leave behind and let go of, because people said the same things about him.

And he knows something else, too: this crazy life he lived, and calls us to live, is abundant life (John 14:10). It's THE abundant life, to be precise.

How could that be? Jesus of all people knows the risks and the hardships, the cost of the life he's leading. But Jesus is the shepherd, and he knows that as hard as it can be to follow the shepherd, it's much better than being prey for the others, thieves and bandits.

It may be costly to confess Jesus as Lord, but there are two ways to that confession which are implicit in this Sunday's gospel.

The first is that if Jesus is Lord, then the position is filled; no others need apply. If Jesus is not Lord, then there are countless others who will try to take that position in your life: bosses, politicians, parents; acquisitions, ambitions, causes; always just one more favor to do, one more promotion to get, one more enemy to defeat, before you can rest secure. Bob Dylan was right when he sang, "You've Gotta Serve Somebody," and those other would-be masters are bad news, keeping us penned with anxiety and work toward things which never turn out to be quite what was promised -- international, personal, or job "security" which really mean a lifetime of vigilance while trying to deny or hide vulnerabilities that are still very real.

The second is the Good News. Jesus is the good shepherd. Like his Father, he leads us together to what we need: food, water, air; true security, deep rest, and real love. Trusting him frees us to enjoy all of those good gifts as fully as God gives them, and the richness of God's blessings are far beyond what I know how to describe. When he's our shepherd, we experience abundant life that no thief can take away. When he's the gate, there's no need for us to try to do that job for him, and our anxieties about whether the "wrong" sort of people are getting in are replaced with freedom to love whomever we find ourselves with in the flock. Jesus is our Lord and shepherd, and so we need fear no evil; surely, as we follow him, goodness and mercy will follow us.

Thanks be to God!

April 12, 2005 in Easter, John, Psalms, Year A | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

100,000 served!

FireworksIf you visited here at 10:58 p.m. Eastern U.S. time on Friday, April 8 from the Tertiary Education Network in South Africa, you were this blog's one hundred thousandth visitor!

Woo-hoo!

Thanks for reading.

April 9, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Sorry this is so late, by the way -- it's been a crazy week!

By the way, this week's entry gives a good idea of the theology behind Connect, a formation program that John de Beer and I designed as part of a three-part arc of programs called Klesis: Called to Full Humanity (Klesis is the Greek for “calling,” both in the New Testament sense of “vocation,” and also more generally in the sense of “invitation,” especially invitation to a feast). Connect has been running at the parish where I work for two years, and is ready to be tested at other congregations; we're working on the logistics for that now!

Acts 2:14a,36-47 - link to NRSV text
Luke 24:13-35
- link to NRSV text

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the
breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him
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.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that the central act we perform to remember Jesus, namely the Eucharist, is a meal? In theory, it could have been anything -- a special dance, erecting statues, you name it. Heck, it could have been a golf tournament (which no doubt would boost church attendance in some circles!). But it isn't. It's a meal.

This Sunday's gospel and epistle are a partial answer to that. Jesus was made known to the disciples in the breaking of bread, and central to the worship and community life of Jesus' earliest followers was gathering for “the breaking of the bread and the prayers” in the Temple courts. But this phenomenon of Jesus being made known in the breaking of bread goes back further than Acts, further than Jesus' resurrection appearances: it was the fullest way prior to the Cross in which Jesus showed what he's about and what should characterize the lives of his followers. Indeed, it would have been a lot more difficult for us to see how Jesus' death could be a means in which he was “lifted up,” drawing all people to him, if Jesus' life -- and particularly, his practice of table fellowship -- hadn't been remembered or recorded.

But it was, and now every time we break bread, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus. So did Jesus' table fellowship signify that we remember when we gather?

At Jesus' table, all are invited to join the feast. Jesus ate with prostitutes and Pharisees, treating them with equal dignity, and we are called to do the same. Personally, the only reason I want a memorial marker (after I day -- a long, long time from now, God willing!) is so that I can have Luke 7:34 as an epitaph -- “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus had that reputation because he was known for being completely indiscriminate about with whom he ate -- even to the point of sitting down with over five thousand people spontaneously for a meal -- and I hope that my own practice of table fellowship gives me the same kind of reputation.

At Jesus' table, there is a balance between abundance and need. Those who have means share what they have, so that all are invited and no one goes hungry. A central image in both Luke's gospel and Paul's theology is that of the Exodus, and when we gather to break bread, we are invited to take God's feeding of the people of Israel in the wilderness as a model. Paul explicitly cites Exodus 16:18's note that “... when they measured [the amount of manna gathered] with an omer, those who gathered had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage” in 2 Corinthians 8 as a model for what it means to be a community gathered around Jesus' table. When we share the Eucharist with one another, we remember Jesus' table fellowship in stories like that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand; we give thanks to God for providing good things in such abundance that all might be fed, and we remember our baptismal call to strive for God's justice and love our neighbors around the world as ourselves, seeing that all are fed. In the breaking of the bread, Jesus makes known to us that this is not just a possibility, but a mandate for God's people.

And at Jesus' table, the walls between people come down. When Jesus sat down with five thousand strangers for a meal, slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female sat down together, in one place, to eat -- something unheard of in the ancient world. Indeed, how common is it for us to have people from many different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities gathered around the altar in our congregations? I tremble when I read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, knowing how common it is in the church to gather at separate tables as rich and poor, and for the poor to lie awake hungry at night. I think (and props to S. Scott Bartchy for introducing me to the idea) that when Paul talked about those who partake of the Lord's Meal without “discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29), he was using “body” in the way he usually did, meaning the Body of Christ. When we eat and drink without discerning and serving the Body of Christ, Christ's presence in all of our sisters and brothers around the world, it isn't the Lord's Meal that we eat, and we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves.

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. Around the Eucharistic table and our dinner tables at home, teach us to discern and serve the full Body of Christ. Let every time we break bread be a remembrance and a proclamation of the Lord Jesus, who welcomed all to his table and served them with equal dignity, who saw at his table that all had enough and none had too much, and who at his table saw sinners and saints, rich and poor of any ethnicity become sisters and brothers, called to love and serve one another as such.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

April 6, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Acts, Easter, Eucharist, Inclusion, Justice, Luke, Year A | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

please change your bookmarks ...

... if you're using this blog's old address, which was http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary-blog.html. As much as I'd hoped to make everything work seamlessly so that either the old address or the new one -- http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/ -- would work, the best I've been able to do is put up a redirect page at the old address. That gets you to the right spot, but it kind of messes up my referral reports, which I use often to get to know my readers better so I can better respond to your needs.

Thanks a lot for your help with this!

Blessings,

Dylan

April 1, 2005 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack