Lauren Flowers Byrd+
Today is Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven. The days of rogation are days of asking God’s blessing on the earth, that it might bear fruit and bless us. In the gospel this morning, we hear Jesus preparing to leave, and planting seeds in the hearts of his disciples. People are like plants. We rely on things like water and attention to grow and thrive.
Today we also stand at the intersection between our love and God’s commandments. Historically, it’s always been a busy intersection. Contested ground. Runaway lovers cruising toward Vegas, anxious anxious clergymen in hot pursuit.
I want you to stand there with me today because our collect lifts up the hope that God will pour his love into our hearts. And also because in today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, If you love me, you’ll follow my commandments. These words bring together our love and his commandments. Hard work.
Most often we think law and love are opposing forces, like they were made for collision instead of riding together in the same car. Notably, historians tell us the commandments were written in the spirit of love: best practices for loving the whole of creation. Jesus himself drew a double line under the word love when he gave us what he called “a new commandment” to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
With those words, he privileged love as your primary vocation, the one that explains all the others. What makes this hard is how love is different from one culture to another. No ancient Christian ever talked about falling in love as if it were a good idea. Let alone falling in love again. And yet we talk that way today. Read more
John is a shepherd’s evangelist, and this year he reminds us again that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name. And the sheep themselves know the Shepherd’s voice.
On the surface it’s hard to believe this shepherd inhabits what a child might call a “for real” kind of story. You have to admit, this particular shepherd is no cowboy. He’s an eloquent sort of shepherd, more poet than ranch-hand. And that’s because John’s the evangelist who’s telling the story.
I know lots of poets and no shepherds at all.
I shared this thought with Elva the other day, and she sat back in her chair and said, Well I can tell you this: you’re looking at someone who’s actually been a shepherd, someone who’s midwifed a lamb into birth and named her Shawna. For good measure she went on to say, And I’ll tell you another good thing about Shawna: she was delicious.
Easter lamb. It’s an ancient recipe. Read more
Luke tells us Jesus was known to his disciples in the breaking of bread. Sounds like holy communion. Could also be the communion of other things. Communion: community is where Luke is always headed, from the beginning of his gospel to its end: from bread shared with the Risen Lord toward the kindred hope of feeding the world, sharing life with people right next to us and people we’ve never met.
Strangers, we call them.
The Emmaus story happens on the holy ground of meeting a stranger. Or someone who looks like a stranger. As stories go, it means to reminds us how profoundly we need other people and how profoundly they need us. And how that need and that meeting are where we meet Jesus, himself a stranger made known in the breaking of bread and sharing of life.
If you’ll notice at the outset today, Luke lets us in on a little secret. He tells us the stranger is really Jesus only the disciples don’t know it yet. All they know is how gone Jesus is, no longer with them the way he used to be. So they share the story of how he came to go missing with the stranger who happens to be Jesus already there, like a fugitive Christ hidden away in plain view if only we had the eyes to see him.
Often we experience God as a kind of fugitive presence : hidden from view till glimpsed suddenly in unexpected meetings with strangers or strange things. Or in meetings with people we’ve known for years who suddenly seem strange to us. Different than we’d always thought. Holy, somehow. Like we’re seeing some fugitive grace we overlooked.
A friend recently shared how one day, while she was working with people suffering from memory loss, she saw a man who used to be on top of his game in the business world yet now had lost the capacity to remember much of his life. For him the world was less familiar than it once was. One morning my friend saw him sitting on the front row with other people lost in the same struggle. He was singing Fairest Lord Jesus, word for word at the top of his lungs, his face lit up with joy. She’d always known him to be a strong man, but that day she beheld him as a holy man sharing something there all along, made known to him in a hymn, made known to my friend in his face. There it was: the beauty of Jesus.
When you think about it, Luke’s gospel is full of meetings like that. Think of the Virgin Mary meeting the Angel Gabriel. Fear not, fear not. Or of Mary herself meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant (Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist), the Lord and the Prophet not yet born, for the moment hidden away in their mothers like a pair of fugitive strangers who’ll meet up one day ahead. Or think of Joseph and Mary coming to the Temple with their newborn son, meeting Simeon and Anna, a pair of strangers who know them on sight.
By Luke’s telling, meetings have life-changing potential. We come upon them from one direction while others head toward them — toward us! — from another direction. They’re loaded with potential favor and peril. They’re what stories are made of, and are so essential to how we live, every culture has its own way of negotiating how they should happen: what words to use and gestures to make when we meet somebody for the first time.
Back home I have a silver chatelaine, essentially a little book of ivory dance cards no bigger than a matchbook. It’s the sort of thing a woman would have worn over a hundred years ago in a ballroom full of potential dance partners. On the cover is a monogram: the letter M.
M for Mary or Madeline, maybe Margaret. She’s a stranger to me. No relation at all. I bought her dance card years ago, and have no idea how it came into my alien hands for sale. Why I remember her today is this: on one of the ivory pages, she wrote in pencil, May 20. Beset by a love that will last till death do us part. It’s a line tells you one day she met a stranger who changed her life. Strangers can do that to us.
I think the Emmaus Road calls us to the transfiguring work of meeting strangers with every hope that Christ is mysteriously there, waiting for us to see him. Know him. Love him.
This isn’t only true in stories that unfold on dance floors. It’s true in ordinary encounters we have every day, in sudden moments when we meet Jesus in another person. God lives in any and all people, is made known to us in holy encounters with other people.
Flannery O’Conner, Savannah’s great literary star, prayed often to the Archangel Raphael. Angels are the messengers of God. And so she prayed: O Raphael, lead us [toward] those we are waiting for, [toward] those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand [toward] those we are looking for! May all our movements [and] all their movements, be guided by your Light and transfigured by your Joy
This day we meet at the Altar and raise our hands to receive the presence of Christ. It’s a happy meeting that nourishes us for happy meetings, for seeing Christ hidden away in each of us. Every stranger, every friend, every person.
 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 21.
 Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., Library of America, 1988) 984, 1214.
The language of Spring is all over the Resurrection. It’s how ancient believers found a way to talk about eternal life, using the earthy talk of gardens and springtime: budding branches abiding in the eternal green-growing vine. Springtime is the poetry of Easter: flowers and birds, seeds and eggs. It’s why we have a memorial garden. Why we’re surrounded by lilies today: the church become a garden. It’s why the Easter Bunny hides eggs and why we go searching for them like little Mary Magdalenes on the hunt for life.
More than any other evangelist, John relies on the language of Creation. Only John begins his gospel by saying in the beginning, as if we’re starting all over. And only John tells us Jesus was buried in a garden. He’s the one says Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb in search of Jesus and thinks he’s a gardener.
And maybe he is. Maybe the Risen Lord is also a gardener. Read more
According to John, Jesus comes thirsty to the well. Fully God and fully Man, he shares our thirst for ordinary water. He also shares the need for help now and then. And lucky for him, the Samaritan woman has a water jar, what we would call a pitcher. Not much to look at, but enough to work with.
Pitchers are part of the usual Household Inventory, alongside mops and ironing boards, pots and pans, sponges and water, needles and thread. Tools for tending to what needs doing. Holy instruments for holy hands. Ancient Celts used to bless everything in the household, from the hearth to the bed, the cow and the milk pail, too. According to the prophet Zechariah, the pots of the household should be like bowls before the altars of God.
Like Jesus, we need the water jar in this story. It helps us remember the gift of the human hand. It, too, bears the image of God. We affirm this in our psalm today when we say God’s hands have molded the dry land. Robots hold up, yet lack the scarred sinewy grace of human hands. Imagine holding hands without hands? Read more
St. Paul tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God. And yet, tuning in to the Gospel, it’s evident we often feel otherwise. Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. Believe in God, believe also in me. His words admit our hearts are often troubled, in some way separated from the hope of love.
This reading from the Gospel according to John, commended on the occasion of a burial, has a short title in some editions of the Bible: it’s called Jesus the Way. No verb at all. The idea is that the way to heaven isn’t finally ours to do or achieve; that none of us quite knows how or where that way aims us. Which is to say, we’re all a little lost: not sure where we are, where we’re headed, or what to do about either of those realities. We’re lost, and some of us happen to know it.
I think my mother knew she was lost. And I think her lost-ness made it hard for her to ever feel like she belonged. At the same time, I think being lost means she, of all people I’ve ever known, was entirely fit for heaven because she needed it. Heaven is for the lost, the utterly lost. As our gospel suggests, the disciples were also lost when Jesus opened the subject of his own death and dying. He tells them they know the way there, and the disciples speak for us when they ask, How can we? Read more