It was a balmy spring morning somewhere in the English countryside several years ago. I had just recently completed a study abroad program for my junior year in college and I had a few weeks left to explore England. So my friends had persuaded me to rent a car. Not only was I scared to death of driving on the left-hand side of the road, but I also had to worry about driving a manual transmission—thereby putting myself and a great portion of United Kingdom in mortal danger. I’m not a particularly good driver in the best of situations. So, tensions were very high. After a few, quite terrifying minutes driving through the heart of London, we were on the open road headed towards Wales. In an attempt to be as “authentic” as possible we decided to take back roads instead of the larger motorways. Bad idea. We were in deep England by now—thatched roof cottage, hedgerows, sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. And, quite frankly, we were absolutely lost. These were the days before GPS. And, of course, we promptly run out of gas. Remembering we saw a small village several miles behind us we set out to walk back there. And it was a lovely, picture perfect May day.
As we were walking along and getting closer to the village, we came up behind a small group of people. There was a crucifer, incense, priests and acolytes followed by several parishioners. A procession! And, of course, I am never being one to pass up a good procession, so our group joined in. As we went along, there were prayers for crops, for good weather, and for the general welfare of the people of the people living in the parish. It was really very beautiful and spoke to the very real needs of this rural area. When we finally arrived back at the village, we learned that we had actually stumbled upon the parish’s Rogation progression.
Rogation days, which are actually also in our prayer book, are observed right before the Feast of the Ascension which is this Thursday—kind of a preparation for that feast as well as a time to remember Creation, bless crops, and ask God’s blessings on our lives. Some places observe the 6th Sunday of Easter, today, as Rogation Sunday with a procession. And one interesting, and somewhat odd, tradition is to “beat the bounds” of the parish. In some places they actually do this—with sticks or branches. And the tradition is to form a procession around the physical bounds of the parish—claiming it, in a sense, as holy ground and offering prayers for all those who live and work within its boundaries. It’s a really lovely tradition and I was reminded of this for today our readings are very much about place and boundaries and especially going beyond boundaries and borders.
In this wonderful reading from Acts Paul has just had a dream. A man from Macedonia comes to him and says: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” And what an invitation that was. It’s so simple: “Come, Paul and Barnabas. Come to us and help us. We need you. We need the good news.” And Paul and his companions go straight there, to Philippi, bringing the Good News with them. And in a real sense it’s part of a remarkable journey. From a beginning in Jerusalem, the Good News of the living and Resurrected Christ moves outward into the world. Some have even described it as being a series of concentric circles. And the same author also wrote the Gospel of Luke. The story had its beginning in the backwater of Judea – in Bethlehem and ends up, at the end of the Book of Acts, in what was then the very center of the world: Rome. And the story is just like that: It cries out to cross those boundaries that constrain us and hold us in to old ways of thinking about ourselves and about God.
It’s also telling that the Gospel of Luke contains the story of the Good Samaritan. One of the clearest examples of crossing divisions. As the Godly Play parable of the Good Samaritan states: “the people of Jerusalem did not like the people of Samaria; and the people of Samaria did not like the people of Jerusalem.” A very simple, but very full description. But the Samaritan man came by the injured man, left to die by the side of the road, bound up his wounds and poured wine and oil on them. The boundary, the division between Jerusalem and Samaria; between us and them; between clean and unclean has dissolved to let love come in.
It’s become quite common, especially recently, to suggest that our world has become much smaller – through technology, communication, and globalization. But our boundaries and the borders we put up are still there, and there is also an ever present, growing temptation to make them even clearer. In times of stress, our divisions not only serve to give us an idea of who is foreign, or “other” but give us our own sense of identity. We are who we are because we are not them.
And yet. There is good news. Easter, Resurrection itself, is transgressive. That’s really the right word for it—transgressive. It goes beyond the boundaries we frantically put up for ourselves for our own protection. Our own ideas of what is right, proper or logical. Even the boundaries of our own belief: of what we think we know about God and God’s love. Resurrection love breaches the borders between people.
And perhaps Resurrection is meant to shock us. Meant to make us uncomfortable with its ramifications—just as Paul was uncomfortable being called to the unknown and the foreign.
Our gospel for today is taken from that portion of John’s gospel often called the “farewell discourse.” And, essentially that’s what it is. Jesus is describing his return to God. Soon, the disciples will begin to experience Jesus in a new way. Change is coming. Jesus’ friends, after the Resurrection will know Jesus in a different way. What began as an intimate experience of the living God, shared by Jesus’ closest friends—experiences at the empty tomb or over meals together—becomes something much different, much richer, and perhaps something that is both beautiful and sometimes uncomfortable. Change is coming. Resurrection becomes an experience that breaks free from the limitations and definitions we have put up about God. It really is transgressive, shocking, and quite frankly, a little bit scary.
Because I think it IS a little scary when our own understanding of who God is and how God works in the world is turned upside down. But we’re not alone in this. As Jesus says, we have the very spirit of God to go with us. This is the Resurrection that pulled Paul and Barnabas to Macedonia and beyond. This is the Resurrection that urges us to cross those boundaries when we hear the cries of someone who says, “Come to us.” “Come to us and help us.” Paul and his friends do take up that challenge. Paul and his companions go to Macedonia. While they are there, the meet Lydia. And we read that the Lord opened her heart. I’ve always loved that phrase: “opened her heart.” I would have liked to have seen seen that. But what we do know is that for Lydia, her whole life was changed. This is disruptive, dangerous love.
We even have an image what the world would be like, when we live like this. In Revelation, we have a beautiful vision: a vision of the City of God where there really is no boundary between heaven and earth; between God and God’s people. And we begin to build this when we work to cross those boundaries we set up: boundaries of race, class, and privilege and any other that set us against ourselves. Jesus so often speaks about the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom of peace and love, where God’s will is done on earth as in Heaven. And one of our calls is to live as if this were a present reality.
Change is coming. And, as you know, change is coming here to St. Bede’s as we move through a period of transition. And it’s a wonderful challenge to begin thinking about how the Holy Spirit is calling us to be Resurrection people.
We can be very specific about this. We can ask ourselves what are our boundaries? What are the borders that we are afraid to cross because it might be scary, embarrassing, uncomfortable or risky? What are the ways God is urging us to cross those boundaries being empowered by the reconciling love of a living Christ?
And there is also, for me, a great consolation in what Jesus says: “don’t let your hearts be afraid. Don’t even go there. My peace I am giving you.” Just like Paul, we can dream resurrection dreams.
I’ve had the following hymn by Gordon Light in my mind for the last few days. It’s one of those that kind of gets stuck in your head. And I think it speaks to this comfort and this holy challenge:
Draw the circle wide
Draw it wider still.
Let this be our song, no one stands alone
Standing side by side, draw the circle wide.
Let our hearts touch far horizons, round whom all creation turns;
Nothing lost, but held forever, in God’s gracious arms.
Let the dreams we dream be larger, than we’ve ever dreamed before;
Let the dream of Christ be in us, open every door
Draw the circle wide
Draw it wider still,
Let this be our song, no one stands alone.
Draw the circle wide.
Easter 6, year C
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29