The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Easter 6C; May 1, 2016
Acts 16:9-15; Ps 67
Rev 21:20, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
This week we have readings about visions and a strategic planning focus about visibility. Trying to hold these together left me with the sense that they were in some tension with one another, so we’ll see how this goes. We’re going to begin by looking at someone who had visions, Catherine of Sienna, a medieval mystic who was, depending on your perspective, either a great saint or a complete nut-case. Catherine was the second-youngest of her mother’s 25 children. Born in Sienna during an outbreak of the Black Death, she began to experience visions by the time she was six years old and, from that time, spent most of her day in prayer. When her family encouraged her to marry, she cut off her long hair and enclosed herself in her room, sleeping on boards, eating almost nothing except Holy Communion, and taking orders as a Dominican. After some years, Catherine had a vision in which Jesus appeared to her and took her as his wife, giving her a wedding ring made of his foreskin — which was visible only to Catherine herself.
After this encounter, Catherine re-engaged with the world, nursing lepers and those sick with plague and eating the pus from their sores. She was called upon to mediate various civil conflicts, including the Great Schism that divided the papacy between rival claimants, and was nearly killed a number of times in the work of trying to make peace. During one of these missions, she received the stigmata, although these, too, were conveniently visible only to herself. By 1380, when she was thirty-three years old, Catherine had stopped eating entirely. She died in Rome that same year, having authored a Spiritual Dialogue that was dictated to her by God and that remains one of the classics of Christian literature. Following her death, a struggle broke out between Rome and Sienna, both of which wanted her body as a holy relic. Finally, her Siennese townsmen realized they were not going to win, stole her head, put it into a bag, and smuggled it back to her hometown, where it is still on display. Legend says that when the Roman authorities looked into the bag at the city gates, all they could see was rose petals.
What are we to make of such a life? Was she a saint? Was she crazy? Was she both? Benjamin Myers writes of the saints that their lives are “completely unintelligible, defying all explanation -- unless the explanation is God.” (Christ the Stranger, p.81) But this leaves us with a conundrum: we are called to be saints, and while few of us are going to take a path as extreme as Catherine’s, if we are unintelligible to those who do not know Christ, how do we show others who he is? What kinds of lives do we need to live in order to reveal him in ways that are both credible and compelling?
Today’s reading from Acts gives us a model template for evangelism, which is the work of showing others who Christ it — if you’re willing to look beyond some of the spiritual pyrotechnics. I know: I just used the word “evangelism” in the pulpit of an Episcopal Church. The sky is going to fall any time now. But the truth is, we need to embrace the action, if not the word. As of 2014, 24% of our neighbors in DC were religiously unaffiliated, and the vast majority even of our closet neighbors had no idea that St. Alban’s exists. Even that does not tell the whole story, because the young are much less likely to profess a faith than their elders. 35% of Americans born after 1981 have no religious affiliation, and my friends who teach in college are reporting that many of their students have been raised in secular households and have no grounding at all in any faith tradition. These are not people who have rejected their faith; they are people who never had one. And witnessing to them is different from witnessing to people who do profess a faith. We are not trying to take away what they have; we are trying to enrich their lives with what we know to be life-giving for us.
So, how do Paul, Timothy, and Silas go about it? First, they are open to where God seems to be providing an opportunity. When the Spirit urges them to go to Macedonia, they go to the regional capital, knowing that the capital is the place of intellectual ferment, where politicians, tradesmen, adventurers, soldiers, and seekers will come for a multitude of reasons, and may then take back to their hometowns the new ideas and fashions they have encountered. Once they arrive in Philippi, they seek out the place where the people are: in this case, a river where the women of the city gather to pray. Today, it might be a coffee shop or a concert or a festival where people are gathered. And then they speak their piece, and a woman named Lydia responds by changing her life. She and her household are baptized and she invites Paul and his companions into her house.
Lydia is identified as worshiper of God, which is a bit unclear but which probably meant that she was a Gentile seeker who was hanging out on the edges of a synagogue community. (After all, she had gone to a place where people were praying.) It’s not clear what she saw in Paul, but perhaps his very willingness to engage her set him apart. Perhaps he gave her the kind of welcome she received all too rarely: respect, courtesy, the willingness to listen to her life.
Think about it: if you meet a stranger in DC, what’s the question you’re most likely to ask? [Where do you work? Where are you from?] But those questions are about pigeonholing you, not about understanding you. It allows us to put someone into a category (lawyer, conservative pundit, Midwesterner) so that we don’t have to encounter others more deeply. It would be a breath of fresh air to encounter someone who showed genuine curiosity about who you are and what you care about, someone who was willing to meet you where you are and open themselves to be changed by the encounter. That’s what’s underneath our fourth strategic focus area: making St. Alban’s more visible to those who are not yet in our parish community and better communication within it. Both are about meeting one another deeply as human beings, getting beyond the superficial obsessions of DC culture and claiming one another, not as contacts, but as friends. That, in and of itself, is counter-cultural in our city, and it points us to a key difficulty: Jesus calls us to live differently than others. If we wish to draw others to Christ, it is not our words but our lives that will make the difference.
Now, I had to struggle with the second half of this sermon. The members of the Strategic Planning Task Force will remember that I was less than enthusiastic about making it a goal to improve our internal communications. For my money, we put a lot of information out there, week after week, into your inbox on Fridays, into your hands on Sunday mornings, onto our website 24-7. People who want to know what’s going on here have no difficulty finding out. The real issue, I think, is that many of us don’t make time to read it. And why is that? After all, you’re here on a Sunday morning when you could be at home with hot chocolate and the paper; you are really committed to this place. When I pushed past my frustration and really thought about it, I decided it’s probably because we are too busy; most of us are inundated in information; our lives and our minds are saturated until all we really want is just to have a few minutes to unplug and enjoy our lives.
That, my friends, is a spiritual issue. Jesus said, “Peace I give you, my own peace I leave you,” but we are a people of little peace. (John 14:27) God has called us into a rhythm of rest and of work that is necessary for our mental and physical health, and we, we have lost that rhythm. With it, we have lost ourselves: our ability to know what is in our hearts; to be present to one another and to the moment; to wrap our lives around the things and people we most love, instead of cramming them into the gaps on our ever-growing to-do lists. The poet David Whyte writes:
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go out into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
There you can be sure you are not beyond love. Whyte’s words conjure an image of restoration; they suggest that in quiet we can find the place where we are held by Love. Seeking that place requires, above all, that we acknowledge our limits. It asks us to set down the burdens we impose upon ourselves and take up, instead, the yoke of Christ. Underneath our inability to rest is a profound distrust of God; in our hearts, most of us believe that the future depends primarily on our efforts. We work because we care, and so we do not rest. We do not rest, so we cannot hear God. We cannot hear God, so we think we are alone. Michael Zigarelli sees it as a vicious cycle: Christians assimilate a culture of busyness, which leads us to marginalize God in our lives, which leads to a deteriorating relationship with God, which pushes us further into conformity with secular lifestyles, which leave us even more overloaded than we were before.
What, then, is our witness? To what do our lives point? What are we inviting other people to join, if they decide to hear us? Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30) A yoke, of course, is wooden beam with hooks that allows cattle or oxen to pull a cart. To me, that seems laborious and heavy, neither easy nor light. But at the time of Jesus, a yoke joined two beasts in the work, and in our case, the other one is God. We don’t need to do all the work that cries out to be done; what we need is to be close enough to God that we can tell what God asks of us, show up for the work, and then allow God to do the heavy lifting. David Whyte continues:
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Maybe, in our driven culture, that is our witness: a community of people who lead lives that renew them, who are not chronically exhausted, who make space to be attentive to one another, who are able to be gentle, who care more about your wholeness than about your place of employment. What kind of people would that draw into our church? What would it ask of us?
 “Sweet Darkness,” from River Flow: New and Selected Poems.
 Michael Zigarelli, “Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy for God,” Christian Post, July 30, 2007, cited in Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p.118.
 “Sweet Darkness.”