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Recent sermons 

28 May 2017: Ascension SundayStreet Angels [on Luke's Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14]

Lauren Flowers Byrd+

All through the great fifty days of Easter, you’ve been hearing stories from the Acts of the  [Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 3.04.13 PM] Apostles. It’s what you do in Eastertide. You tune in to stories of how the Church began, as told by Luke. Today, on the feast of the Ascension, Jesus tells his disciples that time is not theirs to discern, and suggests they pay no attention to when things will happen in God’s good time. And then he’s gone: up, up, and away, leaving the disciples to stare after him in slack-jawed wonder. Which explains why the angels scold them for looking up. Men of Galilee, they ask, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? And go on to say, This Jesus, who’s been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven. 

Angels are the messengers of God. And while these two wear the usual white robes, Luke doesn’t call them angels. Instead he calls them men. They’re like street angels, the sort who meet us where the rubber meets the road. And that’s because Luke wants you to look for the message of God on the ground where you live. He isn’t focused on the second coming or apocalyptic endings.

His gospel was written around the time early believers began to accept that Jesus wasn’t coming again anytime soon, around the time believers miraculously began to discern an earthy vocation for the Church. In the meantime between our Lord’s ascension and his coming again, Luke sees what me might call the opportunity of a lifetime. He wants people to quit looking up and away, and start looking up and around. To his way of seeing, Jesus ascended to a kingdom that mysteriously unfolds in the midst of us every day. It’s there all around us: the goodness of God.

Early Puritans who settled in New England did a lot of looking up and away. They had no special fondness for the earth. To them it was a necessary trial, like an obstacle course in the way of salvation. Historians tell us they were a cold crowd, not fond of hugging anyone, not even their own children. It was their way of preparing their children for the end of time, when they imagined God’s judgment would come without mercy, choosing the one child and leaving the others behind to suffer for all eternity. [1]

If you shared their religious beliefs, you too might hesitate to love your own family. If a random number of people were doomed at the get go, you might not want anyone to grow used to the sweetness of your love. You might withhold your own affection to toughen them up.

I have nothing but compassion for those poor puritans when I imagine the force of unlived love rattling around in their heart of hearts, unable to find a way out into the simple light of their own days on earth. I’m thinking they needed a pair of street angels to wake them up. To say, whenever you look up, don’t forget to look around.

Harmful theologies are always with us. A bare decade ago, the late Tim LaHaye made a fortune selling the last of his Left Behind novels. They were a series of books that caught fire for a while, page-turners loaded with bad theology. All about good people being raptured into heaven and thereby spared a tribulation reserved for bad people still wandering the earth.

I used to know a man who pushed those books on anybody who’d listen. Trouble was he manned the cash register at my local Books-A-Million. If you wanted to buy, say, a romance novel, you had to get past him and the embarrassment of your purchase announced to the whole store.

My, my, he’d say in a loud voice, what have we here? Gardening for Dummies. Are we talking Adam and Eve or just your own backyard? And would you look at this, The Flame and the Flower? You best avoid those flames, little lady.

He left no title unsaid: How Stella Got Her Groove BackGetting Over Him in Five Easy StepsDevices and Desires. It was all fair game for the glory. Approaching the cash register, folks sometimes chickened out and left their books behind. He’d watch them go, too, then turn his attention to the next person in line.

Listen up, he’d say, everyone of you needs to read the Left Behind series. It’s all in the Bible. Every word the gospel truth. Only the author makes it a lot more interesting. He’s got it all going on: every sin you can imagine.

I’m told Tim LaHaye was inspired to write his series when he was on airplane waiting for take-off. Story goes "he saw a married pilot flirting with a stewardess. And suddenly he wondered, What would happen to him if the Rapture came today". He was pretty sure that pilot would be left behind. In his own words, God sends “terrible plagues and judgments” so that the “people of the world [will] repent and turn to him." [2]

Do we really need tribulation to see the goodness of God? Can we not see the goodness of God all around us?

Headlines are riddled with tribulation. Stories of terrible violence. And yet they’re also riddled with the goodness of God that comes in the wake of all disaster when people move toward the injured, the dead, the mournful, and the frightened. Tribulation doesn’t create goodness. Goodness is already there, alive in our hearts, because people are part of the goodness of God.

The street angels tell us Jesus will come again one day in the same way he ascended into heaven. It’s their way of saying don’t worry about the end of time. And don’t look for it either. Live! And live to the glory of God. And when you look up, don’t forget to look around.

Today we remember those who grieve: the people of Manchester and the Coptic Christians of Egypt. We remember American soldiers who lost their lives in battles past, and the men and women who enter battles for us today.

The mournful and the courageous teach us the difference between grief and despair. And there is a difference. Grief belongs to those who love life, to those who count the earth itself among their blessings. Despair belongs to those who fail to value the gift of life, who’d as soon destroy the world as live in it.

This week the news is full of photographs of mourners flooding the streets in St. Ann’s Square, Manchester. They've gathered there to remember those who died in the recent bombing of Manchester Arena. The streets are flocked with memorial flowers, fragile offerings in their cellophane wrappers, tagged with occasional bright balloons and cards attached, full of prayers.

Prayers mean so much on the ground where we live. They assure us and strengthen us. They push back against the force of apocalyptic despair and build up the goodness of God all around us. Three days ago the crowd in that square spontaneously began to sing, Don’t look back in anger. It’s another way of saying, don’t forget to look around. Into the eyes of your neighbors. Into the eyes of the stranger right next to you. Look and see the goodness of the Lord. Look and be the goodness of the Lord.

The kingdom of God is an eternal gift unfolding on earth in our midst today.


[1] David Standard, The Puritan Way of Death (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1979)

[2] Robert Dreyfuss, Reverend Doomsday: According to Tim LaHaye, the Apocalypse is now,  Rolling Stone (January 28, 2004).

30 April 2017: Easter 3 | Meeting [Luke 24:13-35]

Lauren Flowers Byrd+

Luke tells us Jesus was known to his disciples in the breaking of bread. Sounds like holy communion. Could also be the communion of other things.  Communion: community is where Luke is always headed, from the beginning of his gospel to its end: from bread shared with the Risen Lord toward the kindred hope of feeding the world, sharing life with people right next to us and people we’ve never met.

 Strangers, we call them.

The Emmaus story happens on the holy ground of meeting a stranger. Or someone who looks like a stranger. As stories go, it means to reminds us how profoundly we need other people and how profoundly they need us. And how that need and that meeting are where we meet Jesus, himself a stranger made known in the breaking of bread and sharing of life.

If you’ll notice, at the outset today, Luke lets us in on a little secret. He tells us the stranger is really Jesus only the disciples don’t know it yet.  All they know is how gone Jesus is, no longer with them the way he used to be. So they share the story of how he came to go missing with the stranger who happens to be Jesus already there, like a fugitive Christ hidden away in plain view if only we had the eyes to see him.  

Often we experience God as a kind of fugitive presence[1]: hidden from view till glimpsed suddenly in unexpected meetings with mysterious strangers. Or in meetings with people we’ve known for years who suddenly seem strange to us.  Transfigured. Different than we’d always thought. Holy, somehow.  Like we’re seeing some fugitive grace we overlooked. 

A friend recently shared how one day, while she was working with people suffering from memory loss, she saw a man who used to be on top of his game in the business world yet now had lost the capacity to remember much of his life. For him the world was less familiar than it once was. One morning my friend saw him sitting on the front row with other people lost in the same struggle.  He was singing Fairest Lord Jesus, word for word at the top of his lungs, his face lit up with joy. She’d always known him to be a strong man, but that day she beheld him as a holy man sharing something there all along, made known to him in a hymn, made known to my friend in his face. There it was: the beauty of Jesus.

When you think about it, Luke’s gospel is full of meetings like that.  Think of the Virgin Mary meeting the Angel Gabriel. Fear not, fear not. Or of Mary herself meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant: Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist, the Lord and the Prophet not yet born, for the moment hidden away in their mothers like a pair fugitive strangers who’ll meet up one day ahead.  Or think of Joseph and Mary coming to the Temple with their newborn son, meeting Simeon and Anna, a pair of strangers who know them on sight.

By Luke’s telling, meetings have life-changing potential. We come upon them from one direction while others head toward them — toward us! — from another direction.  They’re loaded with potential favor and peril. They’re what stories are made of, and are so essential to how we live, every culture has its own way of negotiating how they should happen, what words to use and gestures to make when we meet somebody for the first time. 

Back home I have a silver chatelaine, essentially a little book of ivory dance cards no bigger than a matchbook. It’s the sort of thing a woman would have worn over a hundred years ago in a ballroom full of potential dance partners. On the cover is a monogram: the letter M.

M for Mary or Madeline, maybe Margaret.  She’s a stranger to me. No relation at all. I bought her dance card years ago, and have no idea how it came into my alien hands for sale. Why I remember her today is this: on one of the ivory pages, M wrote in pencil, May 20. Beset by a love that will last till death do us part. It’s a line tells you one day she met a stranger who changed her life. Strangers can do that to us.

I think the Emmaus Road calls us to the transfiguring work of meeting strangers with every hope that Christ is mysteriously there, waiting for us to see him. Know him. Love him.

This isn’t only true in stories that unfold on dance floors. It’s true in ordinary encounters we have every day, in sudden moments when we meet Jesus in another person. God lives in any and all people, is made known to us in holy encounters with other people. 

Flannery O’Conner, Savannah’s great literary star, prayed often to the Archangel Raphael.[2] Angels are the messengers of God. And so she prayed: O Raphael, lead us [toward] those we are waiting for, [toward] those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand [toward] those we are looking for! May all our movements [and] all their movements, be guided by your Light and transfigured by your Joy

 This day we meet at the Altar and raise our hands to receive the Body of Christ. It’s a happy meeting that nourishes us for happy meetings, for seeing Christ hidden away in each of us. Every stranger, every friend, every person.

[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 21.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., Library of America, 1988) 984, 1214. 

16 April 2017 : Easter Sunday| Gardener 
Lauren Flowers Byrd+

The language of Spring is all over the Resurrection. It’s how ancient believers found a way to talk about eternal life, using the earthy talk of gardens and springtime: budding branches abiding in the eternal green-growing vine. Springtime is the poetry of Easter: flowers and birds, seeds and eggs. It’s why we have a memorial garden. Why we’re surrounded by lilies today: the church become a garden. It’s why the Easter Bunny hides eggs and why we go searching for them, like little Mary Magdalenes on the hunt for life.

More than any other Evangelist, John uses the language of Creation. Only John begins his gospel by saying in the beginning, as if we’re starting all over. And only John tells us Jesus was buried in a garden. He’s the one says Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb in search of Jesus and thinks he’s a gardener.

And maybe he is. Maybe the Risen Lord is also a gardener.

Our translation says Mary supposes him to be the gardener. Other translations say she mistakes him for the gardener, like saying she’s got it all wrong. Like saying she’s near-sighted, too focused on this world. But maybe she got something right in her mistake: maybe there really is something of the gardener at work in his life, death, and resurrection. Early Christians thought so when they named his risen life a New Creation and called Jesus the New Adam.

At the beginning of Creation, God looked on all he’d made and called it good. And when there was no one to till the earth, he made people like us. Our first vocation was to tend the earth and all that lives in it. But somewhere at the start, we decided we’d messed it up and would rather not think about it all that much. It’s like we buried the hope of what we wanted to be when we grew up: what we were made to be, and decided ever after we were pretty much good for nothing.

A recent book by bestselling author and Savannah native Bruce Feiler explores the story of Adam and Eve. It’s called The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us. His premise is that God made us for each other. For us, not me. And made us for love. Throughout his book, Feiler explores how hard and how good it is to love other people.

In marriage, in friendship, in work and in play -- in any relationship we have -- love is planted there like seed ready to flower. The question is can we, will we, tend it?

Easter is an eternal gift, and it arrives with an earthly vocation, with a here-and-now job to do. So, no wonder Mary reaches for the Risen Lord. She needs him: We need him. And no wonder Jesus looks like a gardener. Even on his way into heaven, he’s still working the gift of creation.

When artists paint this moment, they show Mary Magdalene reaching for Jesus, and show him stepping away from her. They also show Jesus holding on to a gardening tool: most often a shovel, but now and than a rake or a hoe. Something to till the earth and break up the hard ground we live by.

Isn’t Easter always working the ground where we live and tilling our hearts with hope? Now and then busting up old ideas? Preparing us for deeper things like forgiveness and reconciliation? Reworking old loves, creating new ones?

Tradition claims the Risen Lord went first to the Dead, into the depths of the earth, to share the news of his Resurrection. The Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates Easter with an icon called the Anastasis (meaning Resurrection). In it, Jesus descends to the Dead to visit Adam and Eve. They’ve been separated for millennia, underground in separate tombs, and Jesus takes them by the hand and raises them to new life, restoring them to the love they were always made for.

In the icon he stands between them, holding a hand of each. You might suppose he’s simply lifting them from their graves. And there is that. Certainly they’d need help overcoming all those years in cramped quarters. But I like to think Jesus is primarily there to put their hands together, to return them to the hard work of love. They’d need help there, too. They’ve born a terrible silence for untold millennia. Who knows what they’d like to say to each other. Surely they’d need a little hand to get going again.

Rowan Williams, writing about this icon, says the reunion of Adam and Eve presents us “with an introduction to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbors, to our physical world." Easter promises eternal life, the radical idea we'll live forever. That's only good news when we're willing to break up the hard ground we stand on and welcome what we have buried or avoided.

According to Williams, by way of the Resurrection we can befriend what we avoid and overlook "as Jesus takes our hands and holds them in his.” Imagine it, then: Jesus holding your hand. Imagine him calling you to dig up what you long ago buried or gave up on. Imagine him asking you to try again. Or imagine him placing your hand in the hand of someone you love, someone you can’t help but love, or someone you used to love. Easter wants to be part of all that.

Through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, God’s eternal love means to flower in us this day and forever. Now let the heavens be joyful and earth her song begin. Alleluia, alleluia.