By: Matthew C. Rawls, Director of Youth Ministries
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. I speak to you in the name the Good Shepherd. Amen.
I have to confess, the people I normally stand in front of rarely have grown all their permanent teeth. But I am thrilled to be here with you this morning to celebrate the children and youth of St. Mary’s.
I have been a part of this community for a little over a year now. It is a privilege of to learn alongside our children and youth. They are a remarkable lot of people. A fine flock of sheep.
15 years ago I became a parent. It was a moment I felt like I had waited for my whole life. I was sure I was prepared. I knew about taking care of infants from years of babysitting. The firemen had installed the car seat. There was a beautiful nursery. The house was stuffed with every infant contraption I could put my hands on. I was ready.
And then there she was. They put this perfect creature in my arms and my very first words to her were, “I am so sorry. I am your mother.”
Despite everything I thought I knew suddenly I was responsible for a living breathing human being, a child of God in her own right, and I was confronted with the reality of my own humanness. I would fail her at times. I would fall far short of what she needed. How on earth was I going to raise up this child?
Wendy Mogel, a noted child psychologist and woman of great faith, when speaking about parenting says… Our children “are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what that is.
I have this quote framed on my bedside table. It is my daily reminder to keep myself in check.
Our job as parents, as leaders and members in the church is no more or less than to help these children find their path serve God. Each child of God, whether they are 3 or 33 or 93 has a unique path. And each of us spend our entire lives figuring out exactly how to live that out. It is near impossible to do that in isolation.
That’s why the early believers we hear about in Acts gathered together again and again. That is precisely why we are here this morning. Coming together to worship, to hear the Good news, to practice how we are to act in the world is an integral part of finding and staying on that path of service.
There are so many places that our children figure out their paths. At school. Amongst their peers. On sports fields and in dance and theater studios. Learning to play musical instruments. And indeed just at play.
All of these tasks are important. But, I believe that being a part of a faith community is different, set apart, vital.
Resilience, the ability to adapt and grow in the face of adversity, is a character trait often discussed in child development. Most certainly our children are able to develop resilience as they master their academic studies, hone athletic skills, try and fail at endeavors and learn to try again. They can work hard enough to feel completely prepared.
But, those of us who have grown all our permanent teeth know through experience that even when we feel our most prepared, there will be road blocks, failures, or realizations of our own human inabilities. I am so sorry. I am your mother.
But in the fold of the Good Shepherd no matter what, we are given the grace to assure our children, to assure ourselves, that they are enough, that we are enough, just as they are, just as we are. There are no grades. No victors or losers on the playing field. No audience to impress. They get to show up here and just be who they are.
We come to fold of the Good Shepherd to work out what it means to be grateful for all we have been given. This is a place to come to face the fears and failures that feel an awful like the Valley of the Shadow of death. There is a table here always prepared for us with a cup that is overflowing with a love that passes all understanding.
The kind of resilience built in a life of service to Christ relies not on our own individual abilities, but on the grace of God. Here at church we can give our children and ourselves the opportunity to learn just how to make such a life of service work.
I’d like to share with you some of the ways our children and youth have been going about this work. Each Sunday of the academic year the children and youth are busy learning the stories of our faith. Each Sunday there are youth who show up to serve as acolytes to help lead our worship. Last summer during Vacation Bible School the kids, along with their parents, donated over 300 pounds of food to Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services. They sing in the children’s choir and beside us in the pews, help carry up the oblations and usher with their parents. Our youth have served others this year, gleaned crops to feed our neighbors in need, and come together for worship and fellowship and learning. Our confirmands have committed to months of study and service.
In a few months, we will again gather for Vacation Bible School and learn that Christ is our light. The following week our Senior High students will travel all the way to South Dakota and share and receive that same light. And just the week after that our Junior High students will head to West Virginia on the same mission.
These children and youth are just fantastic evangelists, all around fearfully and wonderfully made sheep of this fold. They are finding their path of service to God alongside us.
I’d also like to take a moment to recognize that almost none of these kids drive. So, if you are sitting out there and your car has a sticky car seat or two. And there are some inexplicable stickers on your back windows. And possibly there is a smell coming from the far back of the car that is vaguely wrong. Thank you. Thank you for bringing these young people here to live out their faith.
Thank you to the teachers and volunteers who show up week after week to lead Sunday School and events. You field questions that seminary professors may be stumped by. Thank you for being shepherds to your classes. You are treasures.
Thank you to those of you who might be past the sticky car seat stage and show up each week and greet our kids and pat our bleary eyed parents on the shoulder. Thank you to all of you who smile at the kid squirreling behind you in the pew. Thank you to those of you who donated to the garage sale, or bring snacks for VBS or look the other way when the kids get that extra dessert on Wednesday nights.
And day by day their number increased. And so it is with us. Day by day our number is increased with precious loans from God. Together let us continue to become resilient sheep of the Good Shepherd.
May we all continue to find our path toward serving God, in the pastures and by the still waters, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and even in the presence of our enemies. May we come to the table prepared for us by the Good Shepherd knowing that surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
By: Robert G. Hetherington, Priest Associate
By: Andrew Moore, Associate Rector
The Second Sunday of Easter
It all began very early on that morning. The sun hadn’t even risen when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. We don’t know why she was there. Perhaps she was still in shock, unable to believe the events of the last few days. Perhaps she needed to see the tomb for herself to really believe he was gone. Perhaps she just wanted to be there, to be near him as she grieved. Nothing could have prepared her for what awaited her there. The stone had been rolled away, the tomb was empty. The linen wrappings were there but Jesus’ body was gone. Distressed, she fetched Peter and John, who then ran back to behold this new horror, insult added to injury. Even in death they could not leave Jesus alone.
And so, dejected, they returned home. Mary, alone, remained at the tomb, weeping, until a man she believes to be the gardener approaches her. It is not until he calls her by name that she recognizes that this is in fact Jesus, risen from the dead, returned to life again. He instructs her to go to the other disciples and share with them the good news. Joyfully, she runs and tells them “I have seen the Lord,” and describes her encounter with the living Christ.
And what then do the disciples do? Do they run out into the streets shouting “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”? No. They don’t know what to make of Mary’s story. They are still frightened of the authorities, fearful for their lives. And so they gather together that night in a locked room, likely shaken and confused, unsure of what to make of yet one more shocking development in a week that has been full of them. When suddenly, there among them stands Jesus, their friend and teacher, how they had watched be nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb. “Peace be with you” he says. And, as if in response to the looks of incredulity that must have been on their faces, he shows them his hands and his side,the wounds of the cross not erased from his resurrected body. Finally, having seen with their own eyes that this is, indeed Jesus and not a ghost or a hallucination, they believe. And, like Mary, Jesus gives them instructions. He sends them out to tell the world what they have seen and experienced
And they do, beginning with their friend and companion, Thomas, who, for whatever reason, wasn’t there with the other disciples that night. And, just as the other disciples did when Mary told them the good news, Thomas finds this unbelievable. It defies comprehension. He says that until he can see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side, until he can touch Jesus, it’s just too much for him to believe.
And so it is that, the next week, Jesus again appears to all of the disciples. He goes to Thomas and invites him to touch his wounds, to see for himself that this is all real. We don’t know if Thomas takes Jesus up on his offer, if he does, indeed, place his hands on Jesus’ side. But we do know that Thomas breaks down and confesses his faith. “My Lord and my God!” Perhaps it was enough that Jesus cared for him so much that he offered. Perhaps it was enough that Jesus didn’t scold Thomas or show disdain because of his doubts. Perhaps that was enough for Thomas to recognize the risen Christ, our God of love.
Three times we see Jesus appear to his followers in these early Easter stories. Three times he encounters them, shows them what they need in order that they might believe, and, in believing, might go out and share the story of their belief with others. Jesus meets each of them exactly where they are. For Mary it is merely being called by name that allows her to believe. For the disciples it is seeing Jesus in their midst. For Thomas it is being invited to touch Jesus’ wounds. They each come to know and to believe in the risen Lord in different ways. But in each case it is an encounter with Jesus that makes the remarkable, utterly confounding story of the resurrection believable. It is the encounter that convinces them that the impossible is indeed possible. It is the encounter that equips them to breathlessly share the story with the next person and the next and the next.
So it is with us. We tell the story week in and week out: recounting the remarkable stories of Jesus’ life and work, confessing our faith together, sharing in a meal that both remembers him and nourishes us to go out and share the story with others. But deep abiding faith, the faith that transforms our lives, the faith that we feel in our very bones, the faith that leads us to utter “My Lord and My God,” comes from encountering Jesus. It comes from experiencing God at work in our lives, sharing with us in our joys and sorrows. And it is only after we have come face to face with our God that we can truly go out and share the good news with the world. Because then we believe in a way that is truly life-giving. We know the good news to be true in the depths of our souls.
So where have you encountered Jesus in your life?
And with whom are you going to share that story?
“Do not be afraid.” If we’re meant to live into one thing on this glorious Easter morning, it is this. “Do not be afraid.”
It’s not like we don’t have plenty of reasons to be. So did Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. They had been with Jesus since his first days of ministry in Galilee – Mary Magdalene was one of the many people that he healed there. The two Marys were among the community of followers who traveled with Jesus throughout the towns and villages to Jerusalem. They ministered to him and supported him financially along the way. They were with him at his triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and as the tide turned swiftly against him. They watched as he died an agonizingly slow death on the cross…as Joseph of Arimathea laid his dead body in the tomb and rolled the great stone to the door. Because of their close association with the crucified Jesus, the ruthlessness of those who killed him, and their own excruciating grief, they had plenty of reasons to be afraid.
We might wonder why they even risked going back to the tomb. Yet many of us do something similar when we are grief stricken. We simply cannot believe someone or something we love is gone. Even if what happened awakens fears in us that we never knew we had, we return to a place or a memory because what happened just doesn’t seem real, or even possible. Maybe the two Marys needed to go back just one more time to prove to themselves that the unthinkable had indeed happened.
Well, it had. But the two Mary could not have expected what came next. With the force of an earthquake, an angel rolls back the stone from the tomb. He frightens the soldiers who are guarding the tomb so much that they tremble and freeze. But to the two Marys he says, “Do not be afraid.” Once he has shown them that Jesus is no longer in the tomb, he urges them to go quickly and tell the disciples to gather in Galilee, where they will see Jesus. And then, in an instant, Jesus himself stands before them and tells them the same thing: gather in Galilee, and do not be afraid.
“Do not be afraid.” Our observance of Holy Week has just led us through a period of increasing sorrow. A joyful Palm Sunday procession shifted quickly to the Passion. We commemorated the Last Supper that Jesus shared with the disciples before they abandoned and betrayed him. We heard the unrelenting story of the torture that Jesus endured on the way to his crucifixion and the unimaginable horror of his death on the cross. When the world can so quickly turn upside down, why would we not be afraid?
Meanwhile, the world around us seems at least as unsettled as it was in Jesus’ day. Events in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere make us aware of how high the stakes can be in this interconnected world. Closer to home, so many people we know and love are in the hospital, receiving difficult diagnoses, or otherwise enduring broken hearts. How can we not be afraid?
Because. Because the resurrection of Jesus proclaims that nothing is beyond the hope of God’s redemption, even in the face of what seems improbable, overwhelming, and impossible. “Do not be afraid.” Yes, we’ve heard it a thousand times. It sounds really good…until we’re called upon to do it. Until we have to face illness or heartache or fear itself, and we realize how hard it is to not be afraid. If you’re anything like me, it’s overwhelming how alone it can make us feel.
But it’s not something that we’re meant to do alone, any more than we’re meant to follow Jesus alone. We need each other. The second part of “do not be afraid” from both the angel and Jesus is to share the good news: to tell the disciples and to have them gather with Jesus in Galilee. Would the disciples even have believed either Mary if only one of them had told what she had seen and heard? But together, both Marys spread the good news. Together, the disciples will gather in Galilee, where they will see Jesus. Together, they will continue the feeding, healing, and teaching that first bound them together as a community of followers. And from there, Jesus will send them to make disciples of all nations. Do not be afraid.
As heirs of that original community of faith, we gather to share communion together; both words – community and communion – are rooted in the fellowship that we share as the Body of Christ. It reminds us that, whatever is happening in our world and the wider world, God steps in in the most amazing and unexpected ways, and we conquer our fears by living into the promises of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection together.
So let’s live into the St. Mary’s community of faith together. That doesn’t mean that we do everything together, but it does mean that we support one another in strengthening our community – that we love one another as Jesus loves us. That we recognize that the stronger our community, the deeper our connections to God and each other. And the less we have to fear.
We don’t have to participate in everything together, but we do need to participate in something together, so:
- Volunteer with one of our outreach partners, or in the office
- Join a pastoral care team, or a Bible study
- Be a greeter or an usher
- Teach Sunday school
- Go on a mission trip
- Increase your pledge
- Engage respectfully with one another on the very difficult issues of our time in the context of our faith
- Attend the Adult Forum or the Inquirer’s class
- Serve on a committee
- Sing in the choir
- Tell the story
The possibilities are endless, and our job is to say yes.
We’re stronger together. Do not be afraid.