The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
Seminarian, Steve Bragaw, Pentecost 2021
It’s been awhile.
I went and checked, and it’s been since January 28th, 2020, to be exact, since we were last able to do this— come together, worship the Lord in prayer, and then join together afterwards to share an old-fashioned fried chicken church supper. I remembered because by chance it was the last time I’ve had the chance to preach here at Emmanuel in person.
It was a joyful day: we welcomed back a beloved member of the congregation from the hospital, we said thanks for an outgoing vestry class as we elected a new one. The words on many of our lips—mine included— was it seemed like our first day “back to normal,” our first day back in port after a long time as a community out at sea.
Little did we know.
Little did we know that day in late January 2020 what was soon in store for us, as a community, a people, and for our nation and humanity.
Little did we know. And yet, as we approach a critical mass in vaccinations, and as the incidence of Coronavirus plummets, and as the public health restrictions that went with them relax and repeal, we feel— in fits and starts—a return to normal. I confess this week getting down on my knees and—through my mask— kissing the floor of the Crozet Library, the first time I could just walk back in. I don’t know what I’ll do when we can officially be back in the sanctuary—all I know is I hope we get to sing Hail Thee Festival Day!
Strange as it may seem, I actually think we’re going to develop a fierce and strange nostalgia for this time we can feel is now passing. I don’t mean the nostalgia where popular culture of today recycles the popular culture of two decades ago, and sees the not so distant past through cheap plastic lenses of a supposedly simpler “Happy Days” that were never simpler or better. I’m talking here of the deeper, original meaning of the word nostalgia: the desire for nostos--to return home again, coupled with algos--emotional pain. Nostalgia is the pain we feel when we desire to return to a home that no longer exists: if the future is the undiscovered country, the past is a shore on the horizon we can see but cannot return to. It is an acute awareness of pain, infused with a happy memory of the joy of fellowship. It is, by definition, bittersweet.
So what is the meaning we’ll take from this? What will we be nostalgic for?
Little did we know, in January 2020, what was in store for this little community of the faithful. And yet, here we are: I think we’ll be nostalgic for all the funny and at times frankly absurd ways we found a way to find a way, as individuals, families, communities, to come through. The graduates we celebrate today are all keenly aware of the things lost and taken away from them, all the important rites of passage and fellowship. And yet, they persisted. And yet, they persevered. As a faith community, we found a way: we persisted, we persevered. We prayed for the day we could gather, worship, and eat together again. We hoped—for ourselves, our families, our community, the world. We hoped, in the words of the Apostle Paul, for what we could not dare to see, and we waited for it with patience.
And the Spirit helped us in our weakness, in the darkest of the dark days of this past fall and winter. We learned again the secret truth of Christian life: we’re in this together, like it or not. We can’t do this alone. There’s a reason why the sacraments of marriage, baptism (and ordination) all involve the community
Steve Bragaw Pentecost 2021 2 of 2
taking oaths too: it’s to remind us that the purpose of this all is come together, and in the process we multiply the joy and divide the sorrow.
Today’s Gospel readings tell us this very story. There’s actually two Gospel readings, because Acts is really volume two of Luke’s Gospel. It’s a sequel: if Luke is “A New Hope,” Acts is most definitely “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Today’s story is the real beginning: everyone is in Jerusalem for the feast that takes place fifty days--pentecost —from the Passover. It’s basically ancient Jersualem’s version of Mardi Gras. Out come the Apostles, enflamed by the descent upon them of the Holy Spirit. They’re speaking so wildly the crowd thinks they are drunk. Peter—who denies they’ve been drinking—proclaims the Gospel—the good news—Jesus Christ is the long awaited Messiah, and has been resurrected from the dead and ascended to Heaven! Acts describes many things of that day, but at its end the Apostles, the Holy women, and the friends of Jesus gathered, worshipped, and then they ate together. Pentecost is the emotional high point of the Book of Acts.
Little did they know.
Little did they know what was in store for them that day. And frankly, who can blame them? In eight weeks they went from accompanying Jesus in procession of hosannas into Jerusalem, to abandoning their friend in his hour of need, only to be met by him on Easter, and seeing him ascend to heaven, and to be now subsumed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s first audience knew, though: The Empire strikes back. Peter and the rest of the Apostles were marked men, heading all to martyr’s deaths. The Book of Acts ends so suddenly, in defeat, that it has long prompted theories of a lost third book in Luke’s story.
Luke’s audience knew whose story was the third book, as should we: it was them, it’s us, it’s the community of the faithful. We have a fierce nostalgia for the early Church, before Constantine’s conversion placed Christianity adjacent to the seductive allure of secular power, precisely because the Apostles and the Holy Women, the mothers and fathers of the church, found a way to find a way. And they persisted. And they persevered. They gathered, they worshipped, they ate together. In community, they found the ways to multiply the joy and divide the sorrow. Deep wisdom from simple truths.
So I do think we’ll become nostalgic for this time now passing, in ways that would definitely seem strange to us now. In ways we can only begin to see, the Spirit moved among us, and with a sigh too deep for words nudged us to find a way, to persist, to persevere. We multiplied our joys and divided our sorrows. In the darkness of this winter past we lit candles of hope to bring light to the darkness, and reminded ourselves the day would come where once again we could gather together, worship the Creator, give thanks for the blessings of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and be witnesses to the redeeming love of Jesus Christ in the world. And join together in a communal meal.
Our prayer is answered. That day is today. Thanks be to God.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
The Feast of the Ascension
May 16, 2021
It is the middle of Act II in the musical, Hamilton. They have won the war for independence, ratified the Constitution, and established the new American nation. George Washington has been president for four years. Mr. Jefferson, his resigned as secretary of State is creating a rival party to Washington’s, and has announced that he will run for president. Washington calls for Alexander Hamilton to help him write an important speech.
Hamilton is really excited. He really does not like Jefferson and has sparred with him politically for years. He believes he has been summoned to fire up his poison pen in opposition to Jefferson and his oppositional activity. The scene changes abruptly when Washington tells him that he is not going to run for president again. He wants Hamilton to write a speech, however it is not to be a scathing critique of Jefferson, it is to be a farewell speech for Washington. Delivered and published in 1796, that address is brilliant, conciliatory, and deeply hopeful for the union. It has some great theology of humility in there too. Of course, in the musical, they sing it, and it is amazing.
The text explains that his decision is to assist this new form of government in transitioning leadership, rising above partisan disunity, and looking forward to unifying national interests. The speech is so revered that in 1862, in a time of great disunity, it was read on February 22nd on the floor of U.S. Senate. The speech has been read on that same day every year since then. One would hope that our representative democracy could listen and channel Washington’s vision, his hope for the nation, and his personal humility before the larger purpose. Alas, people are flawed and politics is messy.
In the musical, Hamilton asks “Why do you have to say goodbye?” Washington responds: “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”
There are amazing parallels in our lessons for this Feast of the Ascension. For weeks, we have been reading pieces of Jesus’ own farewell address to his disciples. He has been raised from death, he has appeared to folks numerous times, and he sets the stage for Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to work in and through all of us, as a constant, abiding, and eternal presence. Not unlike Hamilton, the disciples are puzzled at why he needs to leave at all. They want him to solve their political problems and establish an earthly kingdom with them at the helm, but this is not what Jesus comes to do. He comes to assemble a group of witnesses to God’s power and help all of us transcend our own personal ambitions and machinations. He is not forming a government; he is commissioning the Church as his living body.
With images of fire, wind, and water, he tells them to think bigger, wider, and far beyond what their limited imagination. And then, as the story goes, he ascends into heaven. His goodbye is a real adherence to the meaning of that word which is a mash up of the phrase: God be with you. Properly seen, as God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one, his goodbye is also an empowering hello. God remains, though not in Jesus’ physical form. If we got wrapped up in the whole geometry of the Ascension, we are apt to get lost. If we consider the essence of the Ascension, it is about living beyond the limited physical person of Jesus into deep unity and eternity, which is a big and mighty thing.
We are in an annual season of goodbyes. Graduations are called commencements because they toward beginning again. In our house, we have two graduating from academic programs and heading off to find and inhabit whatever comes next. In our parish, we have lots and lots of families celebrating such milestones. These events bring great joy, but they can be pretty scary rites of passage for all involved. How we will manage new ways of independence and live into that new space creates tension. Well-meaning folks are apt to ask the graduate what is next, but they are not always really sure. Even if they have a plan, it is new, untested, and hovering in the not yet. Just because the metaphorical U-Haul is packed, there is still a journey to be made.
In that, we have a kinship as Jesus’ disciples. God may be working in us and nudging us in particular directions, but the destinations of life are always uncertain and, frequently, changing. Contrary to what it may look like, Jesus’ Ascension is about showing us that we are not going it alone. God is not a local God, limited to appearance in one time or space. God is an everywhere God whose already wherever we are going. Resurrection is not a static thing. It is the dynamic movement of God in our lives. It is not just a Jesus event. It is an ongoing, all-creation happening.
Right after Jesus goes into the clouds, the disciples are standing there dumbstruck looking toward the heavens. Two angelic folks show up, clad in pure white, challenging them immediately. “Why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?” It is a question they never answer, but the point is a good one for us to consider too. If we seek God, a closer kinship with Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit in and around us, it might not be best to look beyond the horizons of an unknown heaven. It might be best to look around to see and seek God.
As the Beatles sang: “You say goodbye, and I say hello.” While we are in a season of goodbyes, we are in a particularly unique season of hellos too. Extended families are beginning to gather again. Masks are coming off. People are starting to travel again. The middle seats on airplanes are being occupied again. Signs of new life are popping up as we move around more freely. This does not come without change anxiety too.
Harkening back to Hamilton, we might see ourselves in some act or scene in life’s drama that is unresolved, but unfolding. Whether it is well into Act II or early in Act I, we will need to say goodbye well and find ways to say hello again too, even as we hover in spaces that an ancient mystic called “the cloud of unknowing.” In our first times, in our last times, and everything in between, Psalm 139 says it well:
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I fly on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You find me in a minute--
You, God, are already there, waiting.
Travel safely. God is with you. Always. Every goodbye is a hello. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
May 9, 2021
“The Lord be with you” should be “The Lord be with y’all.” You see what I did there? I took that pesky indeterminate you and made it plural as it ought to be. I used to say that phrase is the polite Episcopal way of saying: Y’all hush. Nowadays, I reflect that it has a deeper meaning – one of those deeper meanings that familiarity and frequency tend to obscure. Back when we used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the call was the same, but the response was “And with thy spirit.” My grandfather Taliaferro declared that the 1928 book was God’s Prayer Book and despite the change in our most recent prayer book, he just continued to respond with what he knew.
When I first began to learn Biblical Greek in seminary, after we learned the alphabet, we moved on to the basics of verb tenses and all that. Now, I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about seminary Greek class, the congregant eyes begin to glaze over. I assure you that this is not some erudite attempt to prove some elite smartness. I have forgotten most of the Greek I learned, so whatever I tell you comes from careful Google searching to try and remember what I may have known at one time. Bear with me here. I promise there is something in here for us to consider in our understanding of what Jesus is telling his disciples as recorded in John’s gospel.
So back to those verb tenses. We got the singular stuff straight: I, you, he she or it and all that. Then to the plurals: we, you, and they. Don’t tune out yet, it is getting more pointed here. Our professor, who was old enough to claim that he was there when it was all written, asked us the important question: “How do you refer to others, familiarly, in the plural, like in the phrase “How are you doing?” The southerners all said “How are y’all doing?” Folks from other places inserted you guys, yous or youns. And then, Jimmy, from inner city Philadelphia, said “In the city of brotherly love we just say “How ya doin? Singular, plural, who cares?” And the response is “How you doin?”
The method in this romp through regional parlance served as an important lesson. Whereas our language is a bit imprecise, and has necessitated slang additions, Greek is not. The you in the plural has its own word, best translated as y’all. A contraction of the words you all. Y’all means all. And most of the time, when Jesus says you, he really says y’all. Y’all means all. That same old Greek professor proclaimed that we did not have to know Greek to get to heaven, however, it might prove really helpful to know what is going on when you get there.
It turns out that this particular detail is kind of important. “The Lord be with you” is a declarative statement. Maybe it is best translated “God is with y’all,” and the response might be the affirmative, “God is with you too.” In saying this, we are not making some isolated or individual claim. Remember, y’all means all, not just the good Episcopalians, not just the fervent faithful, but everyone, everywhere, always.
In the lesson from Acts of the Apostles, Peter has been telling Jesus’ story to some Jews, a group of Italians, and other hangers on. This group has a little of everyone in it. They are more folks from the edges of groups than the centers of power. Right there, the Holy Spirit inspires their belief, and Peter baptizes the whole lot. All of them.
When we read this portion of John’s gospel, where Jesus says “As the Father loves me, so I have loved you.” That love is a verb, not a noun. It is an action. And that is another whole sermon that I will spare you, for now. And even more crucial is that the “you” that Jesus says he loves are really “y’all.” And, again, y’all means all.
In this crazy time of pandemic and vaccination and the politicization of science, many have veered or retreated sharply toward individualism. This is not new. It has some claim on the particularly American ethos. It has been rampant in other times of stress, anxiety, and challenge. First, we take care of our own: ourselves, our families, and closest people in our orbit. The fight or flight response we have to real or perceived threat is embedded deeply in our biology. And whatever conflict that pits us against them, is the root of division. It drives suspicion of whoever the other is, and helps us lump them into some amorphous blob of wrongness as opposed to our rightness.
The good news and the hard news is the same. Jesus comes among us to blow up whatever divides us. “Love one another as I have loved y’all.” He doesn’t say this to lead us all to holding hands and singing kumbaya, forgetting the differences or ignoring the challenges. He does this, he says, so that y’all’s joy may be complete. It is a nice thing to say, but this part of the story does not give us anything about what this joy really is.
Later, John gets into joy, which he makes clear is not the same as happiness. Appropriately for this day, John points to women who go through the pain and difficulty of childbirth, saying they do not dwell on the anguish because of the joy of bring new life into the world. Joy is rooted in co-creating, and finding the depth and breadth of self-giving love. The word he uses for love is not transactional, rather it is self-emptying.
My friend, David’s, mother was not all that fond of Mother’s Day. While she loved the Church, she was a rare church goer, and if she came, it was cause for notice. But she never came on Mother’s Day. As I got to know her, I learned that she had lost a son in childbirth and she had a running argument with God over the pain that she said never healed. Being a complicated woman of fierce love and a hidden, but tender heart, I came to see her faith as real and visceral and argumentative. Mother’s Day she proclaimed, is not a thing. She would say “Every day is Mother’s Day for me.”
Joy can be wrapped in pain and difficulty and, even, unresolved grief. As we dig a little deeper into what seems like straightforward life instructions -- love God and love one another -- It is not all that straightforward, and for sure, not all that easy as the world wears on us. What Jesus proclaims for us today is that whatever we have to let go of, whatever we have to undo in our ways of seeing and being, whatever we have to forgive or bless or birth for the sake of new life, it is worth it. Jesus’ love is complete. Already there, abiding. We are beloved so that we can love. And y’all, that is a big deal. God is with y’all. All of y’all. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood