Six Word Witness

Text of the sermon preached on Easter 6A (May 21, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-22
Psalm 66:7-18
John 14:15-21

I couldn’t help but notice the reading the Revised Common Lectionary assigns us for today all have some flavor of courtroom drama. We have the Apostle Paul sightseeing around Athens and discovering an out of the way shrine dedicated “to an unknown god.” When he stands up to debate at the Areopagus (the Athenian equivalent of the Supreme Court), he proclaims to the Athenians that this unknown god is the God who created all that is, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his speech, some scoff at him and leave, while others are intrigued and join Paul on his journey.

Continuing the courtroom theme, in the letter of Peter, the writer urges the reader to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

And finally, on the night before he dies, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” You can think of this “Advocate” as the one who would stand up for you in court, one that would counsel you and speak on your behalf.

The courtroom drama of these three passages makes sense when we hop in our Delorean and go back in time to first century Asia Minor. In the early days of the movement that would become Christianity, those spreading the word about Jesus were met with many reactions: anger, curiosity, rejection, embrace, incredulity, joy. Last week, we read the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen, the first person to die for faith in Jesus. Two weeks ago, we read about three thousand people being baptized after hearing Peter preach. Notice here that reactions to the proclamation of the Gospel at that time — at least the ones recorded in the book of Acts — were never tepid.

Now hop back in the Delorean (that’s the car they used as a time machine in the Back to the Future movies, by the way), and come back to the present. We’ve all heard the news and seen the statistics. The church in the United States is in decline. More people than ever before marked the “none” box on the religion question of the 2010 census — note that’s none N-O-N-E, not nun N-U-N. The reasons for this are many and varied, and they are way beyond the scope of this sermon. Well, all but one is. You see, one reason for the downward trend is that over the last several decades the church has lost the ability to tell our story — the story of the God made known in the witness of the Bible and in Jesus Christ.

For too long, the church relied on its primacy in American society, a society steeped in the language and tradition of the Biblical story. When that primacy began to erode, the church didn’t realize how much it was relying on society as a whole to carry its message. And ever since that primacy evaporated entirely, the church hasn’t come to grips with how to proclaim this wonderful and life-giving story from its new position as underdog.

People nowadays — even many faithful churchgoers — just don’t know the story, both the Biblical story itself and how we fit into the story’s narrative trajectory. At the same time, we’ve entered into that underdog role. This might not sound like good news (and in many respects, it’s not, to be sure), but in one honest-to-goodness way, this news is good. This is the first time in history since the earliest centuries of Christianity that the church is not the dominant force in Western society. Back then people didn’t know the story either, or they didn’t know the version the apostles were telling.

What I’m trying to say is that we have reached a new apostolic moment. We have a story to share with a world that’s unfamiliar with this life-changing narrative. And I guarantee you there are people hungry to hear it.

Case in point: I love to play sports. And as a lot of you all know, I play adult league slow pitch softball in the summer. In the Dodge City summer league, you usually play two games a night, so you end up spending most of one evening a week hanging out at the ball fields with your teammates and their friends from other teams. The folks on my team and their friends were mostly those who would have checked “none” on the census form. But as the season wore on last summer, an interesting thing happened. As people got to know me and found out what I do for a living, they started asking me questions — deep questions about faith and morality and how to know God. They were hungry for something beyond their own physical ken, for something deeper than today’s reality, for something….more.

This seeking happened occasionally, but often enough that I started thinking of myself as the chaplain of the softball fields. And I’m glad and feel so blessed to have been someone who could bear witness to my faith and let them in on the story we all share.

I know this kind of witness and sharing can be so daunting. When we feel like the underdog or when we feel like we’re on trial, speaking up can be hard. But remember the promise Jesus gave the disciples: the Father “will send you another Advocate” to help you speak, to walk along side you as you share your part of the greatest story every told. Paul felt that Spirit when he spoke out in Athens, but you don’t need to be a Christian rock star like Paul to do it. All you need is six words.

Some of you might be familiar with the Six-Word Memoir Project started by SMITH Magazine in 2006. Based on a legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words (he succeeded, by the way), SMITH Magazine invited people to share their life stories in only six words. Such an extreme restriction bred abundant creativity, and people continue to share six word stories today on blogs and Twitter.

This week, I invite you to write your own six-word witness to how you fit into the story of God’s creative and redemptive work among us. I’ll be honest: this is quite a challenge. I’ve been working on mine since Wednesday and I’m nowhere close to happy with it. But the act of trying to distill my witness to God’s movement in my life down to six words has me currently wrestling with what parts of God’s story are truly the most important for me and which parts I fit into. And when I find those words, I’ll have something to say when someone inevitably asks me why I’m a follower of Christ.

I went through scripture looking for six-word stories to get us started. I’ll end this sermon with a few. Consider these some of the ways the Spirit of truth, the Advocate that Christ promises us, is still speaking to us.

Here’s a story from Genesis: God said, “Go.” So Abram went.

Here’s one from Psalm 23, which we read two weeks ago: God’s my shepherd. I lack nothing.

Here are a few from Jesus himself: I am the resurrection and life.

The wind blows where it chooses.

And my favorite: Remember, I’ll be with you. Always.

Perhaps your six-word witness will spring from your favorite Bible story like one of these. Or maybe from your favorite hymn. How’s this one: Amazing grace will lead me home.

When we tell our story — even just six words at a time — we actively participate in it, and we invite others to join it, as well. We can trust our Advocate the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to God’s constant and creative movement. This is our new apostolic moment, when the world is hungry and….

We have good news to share.

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One Particular Community

Text of the sermon preached on Easter 5A (May 14, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
John 14:1-14

The scriptures this morning draw us to reflect on what it means to be community. We each have our own communities that we come here from on Sunday, but we are part of the larger community of the Christian faith — a community in which we can gather and from which we can gain wisdom, rejuvenation, and identity. Within each of our larger units of community, there are smaller ones, such as our families, our friendship circles, our schools, and our workplace communities. We define these in very particular ways.

But this way of defining a community is not a new thing that we in contemporary society invented. It has been going on from the time people could group together to share the responsibilities and burdens of survival. Identity in tribal cultures came from community, not from individual accomplishments. One thing that tribes knew is that they were stronger together and that to go off alone, you would eventually lose your mind or die.

In Jesus’ time, people identified themselves with being Jewish or Roman or Samaritan or one of the many other cultures and nations that were intermingling under Roman conquest. Jesus himself was Jewish and worked within the framework of being Jewish to call people back to God.

When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate a very particular definition of what it means to be community: We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer A, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This separates us as a community, just as it separated the community for whom the Gospel of John was written.

Our Gospel of John wasn’t written in one sitting. Instead, it was written over time to address the developing religious and pastoral needs of a particular community. We don’t know exact times, but given the evidence of what was happening in the social and historical context, we can understand this Gospel as originating in an early Christian community struggling to separate itself from first century Judaism — that is, sometime between 75-100 CE. The religious turmoil within emergent Judaism after 70 CE, when the Jewish temple was destroyed, is critical; the Gospel of John’s focused talk about “the Jews” and its prediction of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom for believers readily displays the intra-Jewish conflict of the time. John’s community saw themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Jesus.

Of course, there were other religious beliefs swirling around during that time. The early Christians were also living within a Hellenistic society — meaning that much of the worldview held at that time was that of the Greeks — the principles, ideas, and pursuits associated with the contemporary Greek culture permeated the Mediterranean world. The way the Gospel of John was written is also influenced by this fact. This Gospel was written to a particular community in a particular time and place so that they could define themselves apart from the other religions that were around them. This Gospel helped define them as a community.

Things haven’t changed much since then. We have different religions and philosophies swirling around us in this modern age, too. So how do we define ourselves as Christians right now? How do we live as Easter people? Defining ourselves doesn’t mean that we throw stones at others. Defining ourselves means that we live out our lives in a particular way as a community so that people can clearly see what being a Christian means. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, this meant that even unto death, Stephen echoed Jesus, asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who were murdering him. Stephen’s faithfulness compelled him to behave differently than someone who did not follow Jesus.

In our American culture, we are not persecuted in the same way that Stephen was or treated how Christians are treated in other parts of the world. This is nice and comfortable for us, but it often makes it more difficult to show the world how a community that follows Jesus defines itself. The media makes this even more difficult when it highlights Christians that manifest bigotry, hate, and judgment on their neighbors, lumping us all into that category together. How do we continue to define ourselves in the midst of this? How do we show that we are God’s people? What makes us different from Habitat for Humanity or the food bank? They do good works, too, right?

In our Gospel lesson, we have part of the answer. We know the way to the place that Jesus is going because we, by definition, claim to know Jesus as God incarnate—God with us—God’s own son. Jesus was always going to return to God the Father because they were inseparable. Jesus himself was and is simultaneously the access to and the embodiment of life with God. This is our particular belief that helps define us as a Christian community and because of this belief, we are to love Jesus by doing his works and by keeping his commandments: love God and love one another.

How have we defined ourselves in our own community as Episcopalians? What does it mean to be Episcopalian? When we begin to lose our own identity and lose our saltiness, we need to be recalled to the larger community of The Episcopal Church and to the extended Christian community.

As Christians, we are not called to be like everyone else and as Episcopalians, we have our own distinct flavor. Bishop Brian Prior of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota asks this question in his blog from May 2014: “If someone were to stop at a gas station and ask where your church was, how would the gas station attendant answer?” Great question. Would the attendant look at you blankly? Give a vague answer? Or would he or she say, “Oh, that church! That’s the church where this, this, and this happens!” What is our identity in the wider community? What do we want to be known for?

Here are some further questions to ponder this week: What do we value about being Christians in our community? What is God calling us to as the Episcopal presence in our community? How do we define ourselves, as the community for whom the Gospel of John was written defined itself?

May God give us wisdom and courage to live into the answers. Amen.

Baptism into the Fold

Text of the sermon preached on Easter 4A (May 7, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:19-35
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

In her retirement, some years ago, a woman lived in the English countryside. And from her living-room window, she could see a large hill, at the top of which was the ancient parish church. One of the bell-ringers who helped summon people to worship was a shepherd. In lambing season, his flashlight could be seen at all times of the night, seeking out newborn lambs, making sure they were safely delivered and that the mothers were safe and fine. The young lambs were suitable prey for the foxes that lived in the surrounding woods. The shepherd’s job was to feed, guard, and care for all the sheep who lived within the enclosure of the field. In the gospel today we see similar imagery. The Jewish shepherd brought his lambs into an enclosure, surrounded by a wall of stones, into which there was a single entrance. Because the flock constituted the wealth of the owner, his available property, the job of the shepherd was to guard the flock, if necessary, with his life.

Jesus takes this familiar imagery and applies it to teach about his relationship with his church. This section of John’s gospel is chosen during the Easter season because it points to the Easter themes. In the early church, converts were brought to baptism on Easter eve. Eastertide was, for them, a time when they began to enjoy a new life, a new identity and a new purpose. The new converts had spent up to three years leaning about the Faith. During that period they were not permitted to join the Christian community around the altar. They couldn’t receive communion. They were at the gate to the fold, but not yet inside it.

One may imagine their thrill and joy once they were brought through the gate, as they were baptized into and through Jesus and assumed the name “Christian.” or “the Savior’s People.” Of course, the step they had taken involved danger. Many lost the support of family and friends, lost their jobs, and in times of persecution, faced danger and death.

It’s important for us to grasp the fact that these new Christians had been led by the Risen Lord into a fellowship.  Today we have become used to what might be termed “personal religion”: “Jesus saved me,” and “I’m going to go to Heaven when I die.”  At first glance, that is what Jesus seems to be saying: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The people who first heard John’s gospel would have heard something quite different. They did not come from our culture of individualism. We need to listen with their ears. The words “enters by me” meant to the first Christians – and should mean to us – baptism. We don’t baptize ourselves. We are baptized in church, on a Sunday, surrounded by Christians. From that moment on, we have pasture, we may be fed at the Lord’s Table, by the Lord’s bounty. We become part of those who have been “enclosed” in the communion of the church.

To the first Christians, “coming in and going out” happened in the context of the church’s growth and the church’s danger. The people doing the growing were those who had been “saved,” rescued, taken out of a hostile world. As they shared their new faith and brought others to the door to the fold, the church grew by leaps and bounds. Someone said of them, “See these are they who turn the world upside down.”  Because of their success, they threatened the power of the Roman Empire, whose “thieves” sought to invade and destroy the fold, the church.

Yes, this new community, the church looked forward eagerly to the final result of salvation, when God would rescue the world, the universe he made and loves and restores his people to the Garden from which they were expelled in the Genesis story. Do note that when we talk about the Genesis story, we aren’t talking about history, but we are talking about truth. When we seek to envision the New Heaven and Earth, we struggle for adequate words, as did the John who wrote the last mysterious book in the Bible, Revelation. Yet what is expressed is the truth-in-hope the Christians of the write of the Gospel John’s time had embraced.

We, too, have entered into the fold through our baptism. We share a common essential identity as Christians. We gather in the fold of the local church to have fellowship, to be taught, to be fed. We go out to make disciples, to work for the Kingdom, to love justice and mercy, to care for the poor and the outcast.

Such a corporate calling is exciting and demanding and continues to cost. Today, somewhere in the world, Christians are losing their lives simply because they are Christians. They may live in distant land, but in the fold of the church, they are our sisters and brothers. The words Peter wrote, that we heard this morning, hit hard with our persecuted friends:

“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

We are safe from such suffering. However, we are called to sacrifice much if we are to gain more. Grasping these truths challenges us to live a much more extraordinary life than merely believing that somehow by attending church we are validating a ticket to Heaven.

Our Lord offers us “abundant life” now.  We are called to build Christ’s church and to suffer for those who are the victims in our society, the poor, the sick, and the lonely. We embraced this calling in baptism.

This morning, as we gather around the Table to be “strengthened for service,” we commit ourselves afresh to living out our faith, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “not only with our lips, but in our lives by giving ourselves in Your service.”

Seeing Through Doubt

Text of the sermon preached on Easter 3A (April 30, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
Luke 24:13-35

The walk to Emmaus is a lovely story, filled with nostalgia and pathos, and graced with details. It has attracted great artists because only art can do it some justice. The evangelist Luke was an artist with words, and the painters who were inspired by him have only added to the beauty of the description. Instead of sermonizing on it, it’s better to relive the story.

It is early morning, on the first day of the week, after the dawn that was to change the world. Startling revelations have been shaking the disciples who are hiding in a certain home in Jerusalem. Women have been coming and going, some exclaiming that they have seen the Lord, others recounting the words of angels. Their eyes are so filled with light that those who see them almost shun them. John and Peter run to the tomb only to find it empty. All this was witnessed by the two people who start out on the walk to Emmaus and home.

It makes sense to think of them as husband and wife. One of them is named as Clops. The other is unnamed, but there is reference to a woman disciples whose name was Maria Klopas (in the original Greek). Its easy to miss a vowel in transcription. Several prominent writers/theologians — among them Bishop George Bell and Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in the 1940s — believed that the second person was a woman: Mary Cleopas.

So let’s try to imagine the scene. The disciples, disheartened and depressed, had hidden in a home in Jerusalem, after the arrest and murder of their beloved teacher. Because the Zebedee family, James and John, were of a priestly lineage, it is possible that they had a family house in the city, in addition to their place in Galilee. So, we will assume that the women are looking after the mother of Jesus in that particular Jerusalem house, since Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, had entrusted her to his dear friend John. “This is now your mother,” he had told his friend.

Several younger women have gone in the dark to the tomb, to wash and anoint the body of the Beloved, only to find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene stays there but the rest run to tell the disciples and his mother. Confusion comes in and out of the house during the morning hours. Is it possible? Can we believe what these emotional women are telling us? If it is not true, can our hearts endure another hammer blow? A perfectly human reaction to extraordinary news from ordinary human folk.

Cleopas must have arrived at the house to escort his wife back home to Emmaus now that her task of mercy is done. Confused and heavy-hearted, they start on the trip downhill. Luke tells us that Emmaus was about 6-7 miles from Jerusalem, and though the exact place has not been determined, we will take the writer at his word. It is a cool spring morning with birds singing and sheep moving nearby, but they are feeling sad with only occasional twinges of hope. Mary is telling her husband about the report of the other women, the wild hope that stirred in them, but also of the confusion that followed. Cleopas had talked to some of the men, but they had not seen the Lord, so their depression had fallen upon him also. “None of them has seen him,” he repeats.

The sun is rising and they pause, put their bundles down, to drink a bit of water and rest. Afterward, as they bend down to pick up their belongings to continue the walk, someone else appears next to them, and they wonder why they had not heard or seen him before. He says to them, and there is amusement in his voice, “What have you been discussing? I saw you walking and talking earnestly.”

It’s their turn to be astounded. The greatest and saddest event of their lives had occurred in the last three days. How was it possible that there were people left in their word who didn’t know that they had lost the one they loved, the one who had made life worth living? When a beloved person dies, it is difficult to understand how the earth still spins and the sun still rises and life goes on. Their reaction is perfectly natural after such enormous grief. Clops asks the stranger: “Where have you been? Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in the past three days? The best of men, a great prophet, one who did nothing but god, was killed. We had hoped he was our liberator.” The stranger is quiet, listening. The wife jumps in. “But something else happened this morning. Friends of ours went to his tomb and found it empty.” She hesitates, both excited and doubtful. “The women saw a vision of angels. And the angels told them — he’s alive.” Her voice moves from excitement to bewilderment.

The stranger doesn’t pause but keeps walking and they follow, mystified. And then they hear his sigh and his words: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow your hearts are to believe all that the prophets have told you!” Husband and wife look at each other in amazement, but they don’t respond. And now they listen as the stranger tells them stories from their long history and tradition, from the Exodus to the prophets to their own time. They hear the references to God’s anointed and, little by little, they understand that he is talking about their beloved friend and teacher, and now everything falls into place: Jesus’ words about himself as he taught them and as he healed so many illnesses; Jesus’ continued references to his Father; Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. They understand that all this, even Jesus’ death, and been God’s plan from the beginning, and now hope fills them that not all is lost. In fact, everything is gained.

But look, time passes so quickly as they are listening to his words! They are almost at their village. They can see the walls of their home. The stranger offers his farewell and makes as if to continue but panic grips the couple. They don’t want him to go. The wife, practical and hospitable, says, “Look, sir, it will soon be night. Please, come and stay with us.” And the stranger does not refuse. In the manner of Middle Eastern people through the ages, they invite him to eat with them, and he agrees. There is a lamp burning on the table and a loaf of bread next to the water and wine. He reaches for the bread and, confronted by holiness, they watch as he prays, breaks the bread in two pieces and offers it to them. “Ah,” they cry out, “it is the Lord!” Recognition now fills them because of the familiar gesture of the Beloved, but now he is gone from their presence. His work is done but they are bereft. How is it that they had not recognized him all those hours he walked with them? They are ashamed. But that doesn’t last long. They have seen the Lord. They must share it with the others. Despite their tired legs, they return to Jerusalem.

They go to the same hose where earlier they had left their fear-filled friends. But now they are all awake, rejoicing and sharing the good news with one another. “We have seen the Lord!” It becomes the most joyful refrain, whispered in amazement and then proclaimed in loud conviction. “We have seen the Lord!” Clops and his wife add to the chorus: “Yes, he was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

May he be known to us also in the breaking of the bread.

Whom are you Looking For?

Text of the sermon preached on Easter Year A (April 16, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

John 20:1-18

Good morning, and welcome to St. Cornelius on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.

But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run a year or so before I was born and ended right as I entered my teenage years. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could steal my brother’s comics and consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet, while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”

In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have a doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is — he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him — she had lost him — and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks. And the Baptismal waters that Pilot, Gunnar, and Gatlin will experience in a few moments also answer the “who” question of our faith.

Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection and the day of Pilot, Gunnar, and Gatlin’s baptisms, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?

The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In her moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry out burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.

Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch him to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”

Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture and abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.

Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation — “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” — Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”

For those of us who are yet to be baptized, the question of “Whom are you looking for?” is answered through our baptismal vows and covenant. And while Pilot, Gunnar, and Gatlin are all too young to answer for themselves in a few moments when we will baptize them, their parents and God parents will answer for them. And you and me. As a community we will ask for them the question of “who” and as a community we will vow to bring them up answering the question of “who.”

Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection and this is the power we find through our own baptisms: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And hear the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”

The Waters of Baptism

Text of the sermon preached at the Easter Vigil (April 15, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exulted, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning — he who gives his light to all creation.”

Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there…) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.

And then we moved from one primal element to another — from fire to water.

The next part of our service this evening was the renewal of our baptismal vows. And tomorrow morning in a continuation of tonight’s service, we’ll be baptizing three young boys. I want us to focus on the words we’ll be saying tomorrow.

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon. The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live in this day and age, because water is plentiful and constant and all we have to do is turn on the faucet to get a drink of clean water. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.

“Through water you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, of us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.

“In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.

“In the water of Baptism we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words form the Apostle Paul who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, but the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our Easter Vigil service because it serves as the perfect hinge between the death in the good of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. A few moments ago we renewed our baptismal covenant, and I want you to remember as you leave here tonight that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.

“To Christ, to you Lord, and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”

The Last Supper

Text of the sermon preached on Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

1 Corinthians11:23-26

This evening we celebrate two things. First, we celebrate the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. This new commandment is the “mandatum” that gives Maundy Thursday its name We was each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ own servanthood and his love displayed through his act of humility. Second, we celebrate what we loftily call the “Institution of the Eucharist.” That is, we remember the Last Supper when Jesus took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and shared them with his friends and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

This meal goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And they all derive from the event Saint Paul recalls for the Corinthians in tonight’s second reading, an event we call the “Last Supper.”

Have you ever wondered why we call it that? The “Last Supper.” Probably not, because the answer seems obvious. Paul reminds us the meal happens on the “night when he was betrayed,” which turns into the night he was arrested, which turns into the day of his trial and crucifixion. Can’t get more “Last” than Jesus’ final meal before his execution.

Indeed, Jesus knows events are converging toward the climatic finale of his earthly ministry. He knows what the next day will hold if everything goes the way he expects. He also knows that even after his resurrection, he won’t be with his friends in bodily form for too long. He also knows that without some physical, tactile, sensory – what we now call “sacramental” – reminder of his continued presence through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit; without this reminder his disciples might just forget about him over the long march of years.

Jesus understands human nature so well. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I have exactly one friend from high school with whom I say in touch with some regularity. Others flit by on my Facebook feed; I know how many kids they have and their political views, and not much else. But that one friend – Heather – is a lifelong friend because we’ve made the effort to stay in touch for all of these years. Notice that phrase: “stay in touch,” which we say even when we simply mean “talk on the phone.”

“Stay in touch.” That’s what Jesus institutes in the Last Supper: staying in touch. He understands human nature so well. He doesn’t want his disciples to forget about him, and that’s exactly what he says. We translate using the less emotional word “remembrance”: “Do this in remembrance of me.” But that’s not what the original language says. You all know the Greek word used here, I guarantee it. The word has been imported directly into English as “amnesia”; that is, clinical forgetfulness. Adding an “a” to a word in Greek gives you its opposite, so “amnesia” really means “don’t remember.” And the word Paul puts on Jesus’ lips in our reading adds another “a”; it is “anamnesia.” Don’t forget.

That’s what Jesus really says. “Do this so you don’t forget me.” There’s a lot more grit in that version, right? You can hear his angst, his anxiety over what’s about to happen, his need to impart to his friends everything he can before the betrayer returns. “Do this so you don’t forget me.”

And we haven’t. One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-something years later, we are still sharing his meal. We are still sharing this Last Supper. We call it the Last Supper because it was Jesus’ final meal before his crucifixion, yes, but there’s another reason. We call this meal the Last Supper because its still going on.

Let that sink in for a moment.

When we share Holy Communion with one another, we are not simply re-enacting the Last Supper. We are participating in it. Through the connecting power of the Holy Spirit, we are there with Jesus in the upper room, even as he is here with us in our sanctuary. As the priest, I am not standing in for Jesus. Jesus needs no understudy because he is present. All he needs me to do is manipulate the physical objects in front of me. Have you ever noticed that I don’t break the bread when I narrate Jesus breaking it? I don’t break it then because, again, it’s not a re-enactment. It’s a participation, a sharing in the same meal that has been happening down through the ages, this same meal called the Last Supper.
Has that sunk in yet? Just imagine how many people have participated in this meal, and how many will in the future. Our loved ones alive and dead and yet unborn, our ancestors, our enemies, all sharing this same meal together, this body broken once for all – and over and over again to feed the souls of billions. When I think about the vastness of this single meal, I need to catch my breath and steady my feet.

What a gift Jesus has given us in this Last Supper, this sacrament of connection with him: his Body broken and shared with his Body gathered together.

“Do this so you don’t forget me.” Even with the meal, we still forget him all too often. But we come back to the table again and again. We stretch out our open hands. His Body is placed in them. And for a moment that can stretch to fill a lifetime, we stay in touch with Jesus Christ.