Like many of you, I find myself standing firmly in the Episcopal tradition not because of, but despite much my early religious training. While my religious heritage gave me things that I value like a deep love and appreciation for communion, scripture, and baptism, I know that I am not alone in dis-ease when it comes to old patterns. The stories I have heard about how terribly people have been treated in the name of Christianity should chill us to the bone. Some of them I have experienced myself and some I have not: the silencing of women, the abuse of scripture to uphold power in relationships, the exclusion and oppression of people made in the very image of God. And over the history of Christianity, we see time and time again how sin creeps in. How the very systems that are meant to protect and shape humanity work to exclude people at best and wage a quote-unquote “holy war” upon religions different than our own at worst. In a tragic way, abuses done in the name of our sacred texts and faith are not new. Perhaps stories of religious and spiritual abuse resonate with you, or maybe they do not, but I trust that they evoke compassion.
Part of my role here at Christ Church is as Campus Minister, and it is one of my great joys in this vocation. If you have not talked to someone in the 18-24 year old range recently, let me tell you that they without fault give me hope for the future of the church. They do not give me hope for the future of the church because they are going to be the solution for the decline in church attendance happening nation-wide, rather, they give me hope because they question unabashedly. There is no hesitance when reading scripture to question why certain things come up and others do not. Many of those young people have religious scars even at their young age, and an ever-present part of our conversations are about what it means to call ourselves Christian when so many horrific things have been and are being done in the name of Christianity. Their wrestling with faith has inspired me to turn a curiosity-oriented lens at the things we maybe take for granted, especially for those of us who have been Christians longer than they have been alive.
And perhaps there is no better time to do so than when the paschal candle is lit and alleluias still ring on our tongues. All our texts for today on this fourth Sunday of Eastertide seem to be begging to be opened, to be inspected with this lens rather than passed over with simple smiles and joy that feels abundant. And to be honest, perhaps I see this in our texts from Acts of the Apostles, 1 Peter, and John because I’ve seen all of these texts used to aide in the oppression, suppression, or exclusion of others.
Our Acts lesson describes the radical early Christian community, built upon the foundational tenant that we gather and eat together, but I’ve seen it be used as rationale to support a detrimental form of evangelism known as proselytizing in which people are forced to cut off those who do not believe “correctly” so that they can be saved. I’ve heard this passage from 1st Peter from a pulpit so many times in support of demanding that women in abusive relationships stay with their abuser and because of that it completely overshadows that what is being recounted here is Christ’s sacrifice, not just to endure pain, but to be so committed to a sweeping form of love that he was willing to endure state-sanctioned torture. And the beauty of John’s passage articulating the intimate and tender sense of belonging that one can find in God, despite all the harm that the world wishes for them is so often consumed by the ways in which this passage and ones like it have been used to degrade our Jewish and Islamic siblings as “thieves in the night.”
The key for breaking the bonds of my own religious trauma that might be similar to yours, is perhaps that college student unabashed questioning. Why are these passages grouped together? What unites them? And I wonder if the key might just be in our fourth scripture passage read today. Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known passages of scripture. Having grown up in the church, I heard Psalm 23 often, usually at funerals. It is vital to so many folks’ understandings of what it means to be a person of faith. It is tender and beautiful, but I wonder why it is paired with all of these scriptures in our Lectionary that tend to hit my own ears harshly.
But then I remember that our scared text is not a single book but is really a whole library. What we hear today is dramatic retelling of Christ’s ministry in John, a historical account of the early church in Acts, a letter to small group of people in 1st Peter, and, of course, the poetry of Psalm 23. For today, it is Psalm 23 that grounds me, like many poems I have come to love.
We are, of course, an Easter people and in this Easter season, we ought to cling to that Easter hope. But as Bishop White mentioned in his sermon last week, this Easter hope, this Easter truth can feel impossible, and the unrelenting hope of the resurrected Christ in the face of all that we hear and know and experience can begin to feel faint. The truth of that Easter hope, though, is that it has the power to change the world. Even when it feels impossible, we have the power to change the world because there is nothing so powerful as the love to which we are called.
Because the truth of how God works in this world is that the way, the only way forward is through love. That the love and belonging that is found for God’s people in God’s peace can ignite even the tiniest of embers of hope. And this is the Good News for today: that God is restoring us even when we feel weak; the Good news is that God restores our weary, belabored souls so that we might be able to love. The Good news is that God empowers us to be an Easter people in a world that’s stuck in Holy Saturday. And it’s this comfort from Psalm 23 that empowers us to live into that Easter joy all because we know that God restores our souls so that we might love as we have been loved.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Easter 4A, April 30, 2023.