In the Emory sacristy before Tuesday Eucharist, circa 2009. (That’s Barbara to the left, directing people.)
Second Sunday of Easter
Early in our educations, our teachers taught us best by their presence.
They are always there, guiding us, there to help with everything from algebra to dissecting a frog to learning to read music and speak publicly and even, in some cases, how to survive in the wilderness. Our own congregation, if you didn’t know, is made up of a surprisingly large percentage of teachers.
When we get older and need less constant guidance, teachers change tactics a bit — they become less ever-present. They know when to leave and let us handle things on our own. Teachers of all levels employ the tactic of a teachable absence, but by the time I was in graduate school for theology, the absence of an authority figure could be downright alarming at times.
The congregations I serve, including you all, owe a debt of thanks to a few teachers of mine, and Barbara Day Miller is among them.
Barbara was one of the most memorable teachers I had in seminary, and she had teachable absence down to an art. She was a tiny but intimidating Midwestern lady with impeccable style and a sensible haircut. From Barbara, I learned to navigate a hymnal, set up a sacred space, do the cat-herding of worship planning and organization, and how to drape a cross with cloth just the right way. Barbara was a good teacher for higher education, in large part, because she knew when not to intervene when there was a problem. She knew how to let the students handle it rather than always appealing to authority. It was good preparation, she said, to when we are the authority, namely, the pastor or chaplain in charge of a place.
My senior year of theology school, I worked closely with Barbara. She was the assistant dean of the chapel, and I was one of two sacristans my senior year. “Sacristan,” if you’ve never heard the term before, is a title used in fancier churches and chapels because “grand poobah of altar care” is too long to fit on a nametag. The job, at least at Candler School of Theology, is essentially altar care plus. Since there is no regular pastor to direct things and the dean of the chapel needn’t concern herself with the detail management of individual Christian worship services, that job fell to the sacristan.
With the intensity of Bill Belichick, I would command the white board before services, directing people in albs as if they were wearing shoulder pads, telling whom to go where and when, complete with diagrams. I brought the athletic style and enthusiasm, but I did not introduce the whiteboard; it was part of the job.
It was also my job to make sure everyone looked right in their albs and vestments. This is where I learned the delicacy of when and how to tell someone they’re wearing something wrong. In short, we usually did not correct seasoned bishops unless their vestments were somehow a tripping or other safety hazard. It was our job, however, to teach fellow students about proper liturgical serving attire — the kind that is simple and understated and neat.
Once, I ran into the chapel after class and towards the sacristy for a particularly important and well-attended service. It was usually a quick turnaround between the 10:45 letout time of class and the 11AM start time of worship, so we all had to hurry. So it was a surprise when my friend Adam caught me en route.
“Take a deep breath before you go in there,” he said with an east Tennessee accent and a hearty chuckle.
“Oh God. What is it?”
“I just… Steve, who just got ordained, is wearing a fancy presider’s garment and refuses to wear an alb. He looks like a drunken pope. Barbara will have our skins if we let him go out there like that.”
I should add that Steve was a member of a denomination that has less to say about who can wear what and when than our own, so he was used to wearing what he wanted when he wanted. Also, his name isn’t Steve. I’ve changed names to protect the flashy.
I really wanted to appeal to authority.
“Where’s Barbara?” I said urgently.
Adam responded, “She’s made herself scarce. Guess you’re handling this one.”
After a very awkward conversation with Steve, some pleading, some charming, and a lot of friendly smiling, I convinced him to wear what the other servers were wearing. I might’ve bribed him with a beer. I don’t remember. As the servers came out of one door of the sacristy and into the worship space, I walked out of the other.
Barbara looked at the servers as she sat down beside the choir and gave me a satisfied midwestern half smile.
During this second Sunday of Easter, when the resurrected Christ, the ultimate authority, shows up in the flesh among his disciples for the first time, we usually focus on Thomas. But having preached on Thomas a few times now, I found myself more drawn to a part of the text that often distracts people: namely, that first appearance of Jesus, before Thomas shows up.
Jesus comes crashing (floating? We don’t know) through the doors that the disciples had locked because they were afraid that the powers that be who had Jesus crucified were going to try to rid the land of Jesus followers entirely.
The disciples were confused. They didn’t know what the authorities were thinking or what they should do. They had had a life changing experience, and then a crisis, and then — radio silence. Jesus was dead.
Sure, Mary had told them that she had seen him alive outside the tomb, but you know how women are.
So they’re freaking out behind that locked door, essentially leaderless.
And Jesus comes straight through the door with a “peace be with you,” which I can only assume is the ancient near eastern equivalent of “‘Sup?”
He shows them the wounds on his body to prove that it’s really him. Then he breathes the Holy Spirit on them — The Gospel of John’s very own version of Pentecost — and he sends them out into the world with this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v. 23).
Now, to many scholars and many pastors and maybe many of you, this seems like some gnostic, possibly clericalist BS. As if the apostles and by extension the clergy could choose to forgive or not forgive sins; as if we are in the place of God. Some traditions have interpreted it this way.
But taken in the context of the entire Gospel of John, it begins to look a little different. Jesus spends the whole Gospel setting people free: this is the Gospel where the Bread of Life feeds us forever and Living Water keeps us from ever thirsting again. This is the Gospel where Christ comes that we may have life, and life abundant. This is the Gospel where no one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends.
And when Jesus met with them at the Last Supper, he gives them one instruction: Love one another as I have loved you. He washes their feet and says only one thing: do for others as I have done for you.
Jesus was the enfleshed love of God on earth. The Gospel of John says that Christ came so that the world might be saved through him. Christ in John is in the business of setting people free: from hunger, from thirst, from loneliness and lovelessness. And as the resurrected Jesus prepares to return to God, he’s clear that he is passing on that mission to the Church.
That’s the context in which Jesus says this thing about forgiving sins. I’m giving you a big job, and if you fail, you fail — but Christ was already set the world free. Your job, Church, is to tell people that they are set free, to show them love and to help them feel it.
You have the power to forgive, to set people free. If you do not, they will likely continue to carry their guilt.
Too often, the Church has retained sin. It has continued to make people carry around guilt and shame rather than setting them free. Too often, the church has looked to the Bible as the ultimate authority for retaining their sin. Like me in the sacristy, we want a higher authority that gets us out of doing the unpleasant thing, like — asking someone to change vestments or in this case, a far more unpleasant thing: welcoming and forgiving.
But Jesus, like any good teacher, doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. We learn to love by practicing love. Christ isn’t around in the flesh to answer every question and render every judgement. We have simply been left with one instruction: love one another as I have loved you. Forgive sin, and people will feel God’s forgiveness. Set people free from their guilt and shame, and they will be free.
Of course, we’re not perfect. From the very beginning, Church people — at least, the guys —- hid in a locked room out of fear. We want Jesus or someone to show up and be the authority, the adult in the room. We screw this up all the time. It’s also worth noting that forgiveness isn’t simple and sometimes isn’t humanly possible. Life is complicated.
The good news, though, is while Jesus doesn’t show up with easy answers, Jesus does show up through our locked doors and our fear, in bread and in wine and water and words and in each other. He shows up not to solve our problems for us, but to offer us peace and to remind us of our mission: love one another as I have loved you. Be Christ to the world.
So let us become together what we eat together: the body of Christ, given for love of the whole world.
Yesterday, we worshiped God and celebrated the life of one of our own: Bruce. Over the years, he was in the business of helping to set people free: in the Civil Rights movement and other activism, in individual pastoral care, and every Sunday in worship. While I often found it comforting to have another pastor in the congregation, Bruce usually thought of himself as another loving congregant. He did here what he had always done: he showed people Jesus. As we said yesterday, he was a city on a hill that could not be hidden.
I and a lot of people met Jesus through Bruce. And you, yesterday, surrounded Bruce’s family with all the love that he had, moving chairs and tables, moving people, cleaning, working.
So let’s continue to carry on that legacy: carrying God’s love into the world, taking the guilt off of others, and setting them free. And let us come to the table like we do every Sunday, to eat what we become: the body of Christ, given for the world. Amen.