May 6, 2018 – The Rev. James Richardson

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday at Incarnation

In the gospel lesson this morning, we hear about how Jesus has been with his disciples through many ups and downs, many storms, and many joys. He is soon to leave them.

As Jesus prepares to depart, he has a new name for these disciples: he now calls them “friends.”

Well, I don’t have disciples, and that would be a very bad and ridiculous idea anyway.

But I am proud to call you friends.

My friends, this is my last Sunday with you. I am enormously grateful to you – each and every one of you – for the time we have spent together.

We have been through many ups and downs, and many storms – and I mean real storms, particularly the firestorms of last October.

I am proud to call you friends.

I am not going to ruminate about the past. What has been done, has been done. What has not been done, has not been done.

Let it be.

You have a new rector, Stephen Shaver, who is bringing many gifts to lead you to the next chapter of this wonderful parish. I am very excited for you.

You will have time enough to look in the rearview mirror and evaluate what we’ve done well, and what can be done better, and what needs to change.

But that is not for today.

Today, we talk as friends.

To be a friend is no small claim. And, in fact, seeing ourselves as friends of each other, and friends of Jesus, is profoundly different way of viewing ourselves and the Church.

For much of our history, the Church has been understood as a command-and-control hierarchy like an army – and a male dominated hierarchy at that – with archbishops, presiding bishops, diocesan bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.

That way of understanding the church has very little to do with friendship.

That understanding also mirrors a way of viewing God as hovering above us in the clouds, as a father figure occasionally tossing thunderbolts at us when we mess up. We become little tiny creatures.

That way of seeing God makes Jesus into something of an assistant God, bailing us out of trouble, and makes the Holy Spirit the cleanup guy who tidies up after all the messes left behind.

I believe this is precisely what Jesus is talking about in the gospel lesson today.

But there is another way of understanding the Church, and this way also mirrors another way of understanding God.

To grasp this way of understanding the Church, you need look no further than this table.

Instead of seeing God and church as a hierarchy, Jesus beckons us to see ourselves sitting around this table, and sharing a meal as friends deeply connected to God and each other. We matter. We are significant. We are invited guests to the table.

It is no accident that the central locus of our worship is the sharing of a sacred meal. It is no accident that Jesus tells us we will experience him especially when we come together around this table to share this meal.

The stories about Jesus abound in many, many meals, and abound invitations to the seemingly most unlikely of guests.

Remember the story of when Jesus invites Matthew the tax collector to dine with him?

Or remember when he sees Zacchaeus up in a tree and invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house?

Or the story of dinner with the two sisters, Mary and Martha?

And, of course, remember feeding of thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes?

And remember the most important meal of all: The Last Supper, when Jesus washes the feet of his followers, and then invites them to remember him every time they share in this sacred meal of bread and wine.

There is no seating chart at Jesus’s table. No rank, no privilege. Everyone matters. Everyone is important. Everyone is invited.

Jesus invites everyone to bring their talents, their joys, and their sorrows to the table; he invites everyone to bring themselves as they are.

And he calls them, and us, friends.

The idea of hierarchy is turned upside down at this table.

So where does that leave our dear old traditional Church?

What if we were to view bishops and priests not as authorities with ranks, but as leaders – friends – standing at the center of this table, connecting us to each other and the rest of the church everywhere through the Spirit?

And what if we view deacons as leaders – friends – leading us out from this table, carrying our gifts to the world that awaits?

Imagine what church could be like if we really understood the Church, and ourselves, this way?

What would the world be like if we lived this way?

If we view our church and ourselves this way – as the people of the table – I would submit that we must also view God and Christ and the Holy Spirit this way, too.

God is here present at our table, not hovering above us. We remember how God came to us as a human being, Jesus, and hosts us at this table, experiencing life with us as we experience it, and going to hell itself to heal us of all that wounds and hurts.

And we remember that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit.

This parish – the Church of the Incarnation – is named for this concept of reality. Please take to heart the name of this church – Incarnation – in how we live.

This central act of our worship is called the Holy Eucharist, a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We come together at this table with gratitude, each in our own way.

Think of this table not just as the place where we bring our sorrows, but also where we bring our thanks for the gifts of life and the Spirit.

Think of this table not just as the place where we confess our shortcomings, but also where we bring our thanks for each other, and our thanks for the food that sustains us, and our thanks for the abundance that we share.

Jesus welcomes us to this table, bids us to linger awhile, and then walks ahead of us, beckoning us to follow into the future.

Will we go to where he leads?

Author Lauren Winner calls this the “Easter question.” Will we go to where Jesus goes – to where Jesus is already?

I would submit the Easter question is the most important question facing this parish.

The most important question for this parish is not how to balance the budget, or how to fix the restrooms – and, oh my, they do need fixing.

And the most important question is not who will serve on the Vestry or who will be our next bishop.

The most important question facing us is the Easter question:

Will we go with Jesus where he leads, opening the doors to new people and opening doors to new possibilities?

How will we go? Grudgingly? Timidly, or boldly?

Will we be too busy doing churchy things, or too set in our ways of doing things the way we’ve always done them to not notice new opportunities, new possibilities, new people?

Or will we have the courage to take a few risks and say, “Here I am, send me?”

God gives each of us everything we need before we ask. Everything this parish needs is already here. This church is brimming with love, talent, abundance and grace.

Let it loose!

Trust in the Spirit and trust in each other. Be kind, be gentle, be patient with each other.

And know that Jesus is showing all of us the path, and leading us even now. Hear his words again, for these words are especially meant for each one of you:

“You did not choose me but I chose you,” he says. “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last… I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

May you know you are loved, may you have strength and courage, and may God bless each and every one of you – my friends.