Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
When my sister made a surprise visit from Scotland last week, we had just one whole day together. When I asked her what she wanted to do, she said, “where can I buy the best almonds to take home with me?” Almonds, of course, are a healthy and protein-packed snack, and it’s hard to get good quality almonds in the UK, whereas they are grown here in southern California and are both plentiful and fresh. So we went shopping for fresh almonds.
Until this week I had no idea that the value of an almond goes far beyond the nut itself. When you harvest almonds, only about 30% of the total weight harvested is the nut itself that we eat. The rest is made up of the hull – the fruit-like layer that surrounds the nut – and the shell. We might imagine that 70% is wasted or simply ground up into fertilizer, but in fact there are multiple uses for both the hull and the shell. The hull can be processed into a sugar to be used for brewing or to feed animals. The shells can be mixed with recycled plastic to make it stronger or even made into an independent, biodegradable, plastic-like product. Sometimes we don’t know just how much value something has, simply because our imaginations aren’t big enough.
The short passage we just read from Acts is the ending of the story of Cornelius the centurion, who was a Gentile and a seeker. He had a vision of an angel who told him to find Simon Peter, who was in another city, While his messengers were on their way, Peter had a vision too, of animals considered unclean in Jewish law He heard God’s voice instructing him to slaughter and eat the forbidden meat. He refused the instruction, even though it was repeated three times. His imagination wasn’t big enough to allow him to change. Immediately after this, the messengers from Cornelius arrived and convinced him to go with them.
Now Peter makes the connection and gets the message, that God’s kingdom is far broader and more inclusive than he has ever imagined, and when he arrives he starts to preach the good news to these non-Jews. But sometimes actions speak louder than words. Sometimes the teaching comes after the sacrament. In this story the Holy Spirit gets impatient with Peter’s sermonizing and interrupts him, dramatically falling upon his entire audience. So Peter does something radical. He baptizes Gentiles, having been newly converted himself from a narrow worldview to something much more generous. Peter answers the call to convert others and is himself converted. That’s how God works in us when we stretch ourselves to serve others. As our Collect says, God prepares for those who love God such good things as surpass our understanding. By giving of ourselves, we receive new life; we are transformed.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to bear fruit that will last. Much of the church’s ministry is about sowing seeds. We don’t know what effect it will have on someone to get a shower in our parking lot, or to receive a smile and a bag lunch at the traffic light, or to be able to walk into the cathedral and be welcomed. We don’t know if the people who see us on TV marching or holding press conferences will find themselves revising their views of Christianity in a positive way. We don’t know if the people who walked past Flicks when Jeff led a Eucharist service there two years ago, or the Pride festival participants who saw us doing a street Eucharist on Normal Street last year have ever thought about it again. But just now and then we learn of the fruits.
On Thursday, as we observed the National Day of Prayer by inviting prayer requests outside the new downtown courthouse, one of the people who approached us said that she had come back to church three years ago because of Ashes to Go. She’s a member of St. Bart’s now. Many of you have told me of attending the Zydeco Mass or the St. George’s Evensong or one of the 12 step groups we host for years before you decided to make St. Paul’s your home. Sometimes the harvest is greater than we can imagine.
We are entering a time of discerning new and exciting ways to bring the good news to a hurting world and to bring spiritually hungry people to St. Paul’s. I hope you will be tolerant of temporary reconfigurations and non-traditional events. As we experiment with imaginative uses for our extraordinary facility we will bring people in the doors who would never find us via a worship service, but they will experience our welcome and hopefully see evidence around them of the outreach we offer to the community. They will leave with an impression of St. Paul’s that, I hope, will draw them back for more visits, until they embrace this community as the home from home that they have been missing, just like so many of you did.
It will likely be a messy time as we explore new possibilities, but I am convinced that the Holy Spirit does her best work in messy times. We are seeking to bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that St. Paul’s will still be planting seeds and bearing fruit 100 years from now. That’s our corporate project, the work God has given us to do together.
And because we are who we are, deeply rooted in the traditions of liturgy and music, deeply connected to Scripture and to the greater body of Christ, that fruit will include the transmission of the tradition to future generations, so that it will continue to be cherished. Look at what we are doing this afternoon, with the St. George’s Day Evensong. That liturgy really belongs to a lost age, a time when the Episcopal Church had very different patterns of leadership and inclusion. But we still offer it, because we continue to tend our roots while reinventing and adapting our life together as the Spirit directs. That balance is essential to this parish’s identity.
In the section of the Gospel we are reading, John repeatedly uses a word for love that the other evangelists barely mention. It’s a love that calls for action, for intention, for perseverance. We are to abide in that love, to the best of our ability. Events like last Saturday’s celebration make it easy to feel the love around here, but there are times when we all need a certain amount of determination to abide in love, when we need to be converted over and over again to Jesus’ kind of love. And we demonstrate that love by the way we act, the way we treat our neighbors.
When we read the Acts of the Apostles we read of their intentional efforts to go out into a dangerous world and share good news. The apostles shared that news in risky ways, making speeches in public spaces, healing people without being asked, welcoming sinners and tax collectors into the body of Christ. They acted. And they acted out of love, just as Jesus did. Their actions demonstrated love, even to those regarded as unlovable.
I’m going to pause now and ask you to turn to someone near you – preferably not the person you came with – and spend a minute telling them about a loving action you plan to take this week. What is one thing you will do to demonstrate that you are abiding in active love. Just one minute each, and I will tell you when to switch.
If the apostles had sat in their upper room and simply felt loving towards the world, the church would never have been born. But the Holy Spirit drove them to action, drove them out of their comfort zones, drove them to people and places they would never have imagined for themselves. The fruits of their labors have lasted, and we are the heirs of that harvest. And now it’s our turn to abide in that active love and to trust that God does indeed have such good things in store for us as surpass our understanding.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
May 6, 2018 Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges