Harrowing Of Hell
May 12, 2014

Community Christian

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Today is the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day being set aside as a holiday in the United States.  The idea was born out of the same era as women’s suffrage and the labor movements.  The hope was to honor mothers for the overwhelming impact their care and nurture have upon humanity.  Christian author, Diana Butler Bass summarizes its history in this way.  “In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother.  One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers.  Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations—like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association—picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law.  Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.”

What is often jokingly referred to as a “Hallmark” holiday is actually rooted in the radical feminist movement and steeped in religious values.  There are many emotions around motherhood…being a mother, not to mention relationships with our own mothers, step-mothers, and mothers-in-law; and to that I encourage you to take note of the final prayer in today’s prayers of the people.  It is a wonderful prayer, which articulately includes all facets of “mothering” and I commend it to you.  But today, my heart aches for the 276 mothers in Nigeria. Not only the mothers, but also the fathers, siblings, loved ones, and teachers of the teenage girls who have been kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram.  This morning, between the services, a group of us gathered in the Chapel to lift up the girls in prayer, saying the name of each and praying for their safety and a swift reunion with their loved ones.

We know what has happened to these girls because some of them were fortunate enough to escape. But it isn’t over yet.  The story continues, as I’m sure you have heard in the news, as people around the world cry out for justice.

“Bring back our girls” is a battle cry being raised in all corners of the globe, from world leaders and celebrities, from mothers, daughters, fathers, and brothers at sit-ins, marches, and vigils.  The global community is standing up for justice and demanding these girls be returned home. I can’t help but draw parallels to today’s gospel reading of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  In this story about sheep herding and gates, we encounter the closest thing to a parable in the entire Gospel according to John.  Jesus is depicted first as the gate through which the sheep enter into safety and later, as the shepherd who calls the sheep by name.  It isn’t the same at all, but this morning, we call each of the Nigerian girls by name, and offer a moment of prayer for their safety, for their protection, for their being saved and returned to their community.

It often feels like our global community is shrinking.  Things that happen on the other side of the world appear on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter almost instantaneously.  Digital images and video can be uploaded and distributed around the world from a handheld device in minutes.  And yet, these technological advances seem to shrink our kingdom just as much as they expand it.  For instance, I can listen to the news; educate myself as to what is happening in Nigeria, the Ukraine, and Israel, but then what?  If it doesn’t initiate action on my part towards looking beyond the walls of my personal kingdom, then what good has it done?  Life in the Kingdom of God is more than hashtags and tweets.  It is sometimes looking far, far beyond the walls of our own kingdom into the nightmares being experienced by others.

Being a Christian is all about community.  It is about living your life the way Jesus would live it if he were you.  And I believe that means praying for the girls in Nigeria, praying for their loved ones, and praying for their captors.  It means writing or calling lawmakers.  It means recognizing injustices in this world both abroad and in our very own backyard and having the courage to speak out.  What today’s reading from Acts is talking about is this, living in Christian community.  The reading began with words that should be extremely familiar to our ears; “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Where else do we hear those words and make those promises ourselves?  We do it when we renew our Baptismal Covenant just like we did at Easter.  When we respond with the words, “I will with God’s help” to this very question, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

This story in Acts comes from a time when the early Christians were just beginning to figure out what it actually means to be a Christian.  If we were to take a step back and critically examine what it means to say, “I am a Christian.”

And if we were to base that critical examination on this passage from Acts alone, I think we could summarize it by saying that the main purpose of our life together is to nurture Christian community. The author of this text is trying to communicate a Christian norm and expectation that Christians who live near to one another are expected to also share a common religious life.  We are not lone ranger Christians. It takes a community to fully understand and express what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Now, where I grew up, everyone went to church.  The Episcopalians were actually the heathens because we only went on Sunday mornings.  Most of my friends went on Sunday mornings, back on Sunday evenings, and always on Wednesday nights.  Out of that environment, I embarked on a six-month journey to study abroad in the Holy Land where I felt totally like a fish out of water, or more appropriately, a Christian out of community, as I was the only Christian I knew in a sea of Jews and Muslims. And then after a sojourn in the wilderness called seminary, I found my way here, to Seattle.  The Pacific Northwest where people, if asked, are most likely to say, “Sure, I consider myself a Christian, but I don’t go to church.  I think of myself as spiritual but I’m not really into ‘organized religion.’” Isn’t that right?  But, if we were to approach our spirituality in that way, it would be missing something.  If we didn’t have Christian community to ground us and nurture us, we might be running around in the world committing random acts of vague religion.

The concept of community being expressed in this story is called “koinonia” in the Greek and is a common idea in Paul’s letters.  This unique kind of community exists only because of God’s gift to us, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is a transforming presence among us that unites all believers into a common koinonia.  There is a hunger in today’s world for connectedness, a desire to find meaningful relationships in a busy and complex world.  That is why social media is so popular and addictive. It provides a “sense” of connection, whether or not it is authentic or “real.” And that is why church communities are so very important.  Places like Epiphany gather community and that is something, which our souls desire.  It is my fervent hope that the girls who have been kidnapped may find even among themselves, a sense of community and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In closing, I offer this simple prayer:

O God, we cry out to you
for the lives and the freedom
of the 276 girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria.
In their time of danger and fear,
pour out your strong Spirit for them.
Make a way home for them in safety.
Make a way back for them
to the education that will lift them up.
Hold them in the knowledge
that they are not captive slaves,
they are not purchased brides,
but they are your beloved daughters,
and precious in your sight.
Change the hearts and minds of their kidnappers
and of all who choose violence against women and girls.
Cast down the mighty from their seat,
and lift up the humble and meek,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.