This morning I want to tell you a story that’s a little different from the usual because it’s about a place rather than a person. It’s a story from the New Testament, but it doesn’t stand alone. It runs like a thread through several other stories, but today I want to tell it straight through on its own. I want to think about how much this place meant to the people who sheltered there.
I’m talking about the Upper Room, which is also sometimes called the Cenacle, where the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to them in the form of rushing wind and tongues of fire.
This room had been so important to them. It had been a refuge—a place of safety—and also a place of prayer. It’s a place where they were changed, so they were never the same once they left it behind.
The first time we hear about the Upper Room is when Jesus tells his people to talk to a certain man in Jerusalem about using a large upstairs room at his house for the Passover meal. And the man lends them the space they ask for, and that’s where they have their last supper together.
So it’s where Jesus blesses bread and wine and tells his friends to keep doing this exact thing, in his memory.
Friends, we find ourselves today in an in-between time, a time between what was in the past, and what will be in the future. We’re between the world as we knew it, and the world as it’s going to be, and it’s like being poised on a threshold between two different places, but in this case we can’t turn back. We can’t go back to the way things were, and there’s nothing we can do to make the future come any faster.
All we can do is wait.
And I know you might think I’m talking about the pandemic, or the way things are in the world in general, and of course those things do come to mind.
But I’m also talking about our life in church. Today we find ourselves in an in-between time, the time on the calendar of the church year between Ascension Thursday, which was last week, and the Feast of Pentecost, which is next Sunday. On the Feast of the Ascension we remember the day when Jesus Christ departed this earth in his human body, and on Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and rushing wind as the dispirited disciples waited in Jerusalem.
And in that time between, the disciples were waiting, not knowing what was coming next.
And I wonder how that must have felt for them. After the devastation of the crucifixion, and the unexpected joy of the resurrection, they must have hoped that Jesus would stay with them for a while. And that in-between time, the time before they became aware of the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit—the power of the Holy Spirit—that must have been a very sad and lonely time for them.
“This is my commandment,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As I have loved you. That really is the kicker in this commandment to love, which at first glance sounds rather pleasant, because who doesn’t want to love and be loved? But to love as Jesus loved—to lay down one’s life for one’s friends—that’s something else again.
You don’t often hear of someone giving up their life for their friends, although of course it does sometimes happen. This past week when I was reflecting on that line from the Gospel I found myself thinking about story of Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales.
I think I mentioned in one of my Holy Week sermons that Ruby Sales had led a Bible study for the diocese this Lent on Zoom back. She’s a middle-aged woman now, and I couldn’t help wondering what you would do with your life if you knew that someone else had given up his own so that you might live.
Which is an interesting question—right?—because that is exactly what we say we believe about ourselves.
Anyway, Jonathan Daniels[i] and Ruby Sales. You might have heard their story, since the Episcopal Church does remember Daniels each year on August 14 in our calendar of commemorations.
He was a native of Keene, New Hampshire, valedictorian for the Class of 1961 at Virginia Military Academy, and a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he felt called in 1965 to go South and get involved in the civil rights movement.
First of all, I want to warn you up front: I’m going to invite you to share some sermon-related thoughts of your own this morning via the comments box on Facebook. This will be voluntary, of course, but if you think you might want to play along at home, have your keyboard ready.
I’ll even give you a rough idea now of what I’m going to ask. In general, it’s about what we’ve learned over the past 13 months about continuing as a community when we can’t be together in person.
What have we learned about that? What lessons has this pandemic taught us?
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles along those lines lately, as the vaccines roll out and as things begin to ease up a little. Articles about what we’ve learned. What have we learned about what really matters in life? What do we appreciate more now than we did before?
I saw a blurb last week for an article about things that people started doing during the pandemic that they want to keep doing when it’s over. It mentioned three things in particular: cooking at home, telecommuting, and wearing soft pants.
I call these two trees the old friends. They were growing in my back yard, side by side at the edge of a pond, when I moved here more than 40 years ago. I don’t know enough about trees to guess how old they were by then. They stand side by side, together enduring whatever weather comes, shedding their leaves each fall and growing new ones in the spring.
Although they’re different species, from some perspectives the two appear to be one tree. Sometimes I think of them as a family, the pair of smaller trees on either side their offspring.
We’ve asked our tree guy if we should be concerned about the health of the darker one standing slightly to the front, but he says no, it’s fine. I hope he’s right because it grows at an angle, leaning toward our house, but the tree guy says the roots are strong.
We moved several times when I was a kid, and I never felt rooted the way other people seemed to be in any of the places I’ve lived. Even now. There’s some sadness for me in that. Other times, though, I’ve just felt glad that I’m not stuck in one place. At least in theory.
I’m really pleased that two of my photos including this one are included in the Pace Center for Photography’s current show, Odyssey, which opened online today. Go to this page – https://www.pacenterforphotography.org/odyssey-2021…/ – and scroll down to see them both. Of course you should really go to A and look at the whole thing if you have time. I’ve just started to browse through it and it’s fabulous!
I’m going to say something that would no doubt shock some of my church friends if they heard it, but I feel like Easter is over.
At my house, it was just the two of us this year. We didn’t dye eggs, we didn’t have much candy, we had no ham or lamb leftovers. So at home, we’re done, we’re finished, Easter is over.
But here in church, the season of Easter continues until Pentecost, until the end of May. And just in case I forgot about that, I got an email last week from Episcopal Church headquarters with the subject line “Easter joy continues.” Well, I opened it in great anticipation, but it did not turn out to be a spiritual greeting, it was just a reminder that I still have time to contribute to the church’s annual appeal. So we have all kinds of ways of celebrating the things that matter in church—in church, where it is still Easter.
And in fact we’re really just getting started in telling the Easter story. This morning’s Gospel was still about that very first day, the day of the Resurrection. It comes from the last chapter of Luke, Chapter 24, which really focuses on just that one day, as the disciples struggle to understand what is going on here.
If the Gospel were drama, you could think of the story that we heard this morning as a play in two short acts, both taking place on the same very simple set, the room where Jesus and his disciples gathered the night before Jesus died.
The first act takes place on the evening of the same day that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. And the second takes place exactly one week later, when Jesus returns and shows Thomas his wounds. It might seem like a very bare-bones story, but there’s a lot going on here.
And one question in particular stood out for me as I thought about it over the past week in this year of Our Lord 2021:
Why did the resurrected body of Jesus still bear the wounds of his crucifixion?
There’s a traditional Japanese art form called kintsugi which is used to repair broken pottery. The kintsugi master uses lacquer to reattach the pieces of a broken bowl or teacup, then pours gold to fill in the spaces.
The result is considered to be even more precious and beautiful than the unbroken original. But it will never be the same again. The outline of the pieces will always be visible. You’ll always be able to see that it was broken.
At Easter we celebrate the mending of the whole world, the repair of our own brokenness. This is the essence of our faith: That by his resurrection, Jesus has triumphed over evil forever. Life has conquered death. Our God is making all things new.
I believe this with all my heart. I do.
And yet when I think of our world as it is today, I also struggle to understand. It’s hard, sometimes, to believe that what we’re witnessing is God’s New Creation, because we live in a world which by all appearances is still broken. Each day’s headlines bring new evidence of that fact.
So maybe you could say we’re being mended kintsugi style. Our broken parts can still be seen, but they’re being patched together with gold so it is beautiful in its own way.
Our diocese had an online Bible study this Lent, led by Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales. “Who is Jesus to you?” is a question she asked over and over again as we worked our way through the Gospel readings for the season.
“Who do you say that I am?” That’s the same question Jesus once asked Peter, and Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” Of course he was right, but each one of us ought to be able to answer that question in our own words.
Of course he was a teacher, a friend. He was Mary’s son. He was a man who set an example through his own life of how to lead a life of principal.
Churchgoers might think of the formulas we use in church: Son of God, Redeemer. We say that he died “for us.”
But the Jesus we see tonight is a suffering man. A man condemned to a horrible death in an unjust trial because powerful men wanted him out of the way. And they were willing to sell their souls to accomplish that.
In every generation we have come to understand this story through the lens of our own times. It’s not that Jesus’ basic identity changes, but to live as people of faith we have to be able to say what Jesus means to us in our lives. In our world.
We have to keep asking ourselves that question: Who do you say Jesus is?