Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A

This sermon was recorded for the Sunday services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, Kentucky, where I served as a supply preacher during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first few sentences address that that parish, though I hope that the sermon addresses you no matter where you tune in from and view it.

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

Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for me. (Psalm 66:16)

Hello! My name is Ben Cowgill, and I am so glad to be with you all this Sunday, albeit in this virtual form. For those who do not know me, I am Mother Allison’s fiancé. I just completed my second year of seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee. I grew up in North Carolina and came to Sewanee by way of Virginia, where I went to undergrad at Roanoke College. At Sewanee, I met Allison, and the rest is history. I was excited in February of 2019 to visit you all for her diaconal ordination, and see the place that formed her into the wonderful priest that she is today. Then, I did not know that a year later I would be returning to preach here during this unprecedented time.

An unprecedented time. That is a good word for both the time we are in, and the times facing the disciples in all of our three readings for today. Let’s look today at the situations in the stories each of the disciples faced.

In our reading from Acts, Paul has come to Athens. A lot of us know Athens well from reading the Odyssey and the Iliad in school: from the stories of the Ancient Greek Gods like Athena, Zeus and those humans that interacted with them. The ancient Greeks believed there were many Gods, and Paul, along with the disciples believed in One God. Prior to this story, Paul was in Thessalonica, where he was chased out of town by a mob; he came through Beroea, where the Thessalonian Jews followed them and stirred up the crowd; so Paul fled to Athens, where we find him today. Paul followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit— he proclaimed the gospel wherever he went, and he did his best to proclaim it in a way that they could hear it. In Athens, he found that people laughed at him for proclaiming something totally foreign. Here Paul was not reasoning with the Jewish people, who knew the God of Israel. So Paul, vexed by the many Gods they knew, finds a statue “to an unknown God;” and he issues the proclamation we heard this morning.

Finally. We know who God is.

Paul preached.

Then, we have a reading from First Peter. Peter is writing to a group of churches in Asia, and he writes to them at a time that they are vexed. Those early Christians are exiled, and according to Peter “are suffering various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). So Peter writes to them to encourage them and remind them of the graces of God. Peter’s message rings true today for us:

Even if we suffer for doing what is right, we are blessed.
Defend your faith with gentleness and reverence.
Keep your conscience clear.
Jesus also suffered; and he did so on our behalf.
Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection will save us.

Peter preached.

The lectionary shares those two stories from after Jesus’ resurrection, followed by the gospel. This throwback to before the resurrection is meant to remind us of a promise Jesus made before his death.

In this gospel passage , Jesus is speaking to his disciples before his death; he promises to send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. He promises to return, and that the disciples will see him even though the world may not. He exhorts us to follow God’s commandments, his commandments, and that through the love which the disciples have for him, he will be with them.

Jesus preached.

All three of these stories are pressing and urgent for us to hear this morning. Jesus made a promise; that the Holy Spirit would be with us, and guide us. He asked that we keep the commandments as he taught them, and follow him. Peter keeps encouraging us; we will suffer. Suffering is a part of life; it is not God given, or caused by God; in fact God suffers with us through the power of the Cross. But Jesus’ suffering and death does not have the last word— God did, and God always will. Peter guides us through our sufferings and reminds us again to follow Jesus, and to express mutual love for each other, even in suffering (1 Peter 1:22). Finally, Paul shows us the way forward. Even in persecution, Paul finds a way to preach the gospel. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he found a new way to reach people even in a foreign land, where he was a stranger.

I have to admit that my own preaching efforts pale in comparison to those of Jesus, Peter, and Paul; yet, if I may, I will share a piece of my own experience during this time.

As I am sheltered at home, I find myself with more time than before; the mechanics of my old day-to-day life were forcibly removed, and my classes and homework ended little more than two weeks ago. Yet as I write this sermon and reflect back on the past week, I feel like grasping this abundance of time is like grasping a bag of sand. I reach down to grab the bag, and by enormous exertion I lift it up, only to find a hole has been slashed in the bottom, and the sand draining out faster than I can move the bag. By the time I move the sandbag, it is nearly empty. Then, I sleep, reawake, and am faced again with the bag of sand; full, ready to be picked up again and moved, with no indication of whether or not there is a hole in the bottom. Some days, the hole is smaller, and other days, the bottom falls out as soon as I get the bag of sand in my hand. Each day wears more on me, as I grasp more and more at the bags of sand, trying to move them according to my will, and my desires. I see the many bags of sand stretched ahead of me, with no end in sight. I often sit on my pile of sand at the end of the night, wondering where the time went as I grasp at the things I want to be doing. Maybe the abundance of time I always sought when I used to be “busy” was not actually what I needed after all.

I have recently realized in my spiritual life one of the great truths of the faith; we are as God made us— beloved. Nothing I can do will change that. I do not need to read more, write more, perform better, or succeed; I will always be a beloved child of God. Nothing I do, or fail to do, during this time of pandemic will affect my status as a child of God. I had to let go of my grasp on life in order to see this. Instead of moving bags of sand, I have to sit and wait for God. Though my plans may be good, they are not always God’s plans for me.

The Athenians had a monument “to an unknown God,” just in case they missed a God in all of their other Gods. They had a backup plan.

We in the 21st century love backup plans. We love to grasp the bags of sand, believing that we can assert control over our lives and reach happiness, joy, peace, fulfillment on our own making. We love it so much, we create plans and backup plans and contingency plans. Yet, so often in life, our control is stripped away. This pandemic has stripped our control away.

Yet God can make something out of nothing; and we can make meaning out of our suffering today. There is good news. God is finding a way into our loss of control and remaking it; God is reminding us that we are beloved, and that he is with us. Suffering and our human nature do not have the last word; God does. God has given us assurance by raising Christ from the dead; Christ is with us especially in this uncertain time. The Holy Spirit is at work, connecting us even as we suffer, even as we are exiled from our churches. For this, we can pray with the psalmist:

Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
Or removed his steadfast love from me. (Psalm 66:18)

Amen.

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