Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 10 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 6:1-7 | Psalm 33:1-2;4-5;18-19
I Peter 2:4-9 | John 14:1-12

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

       The last time I preached, two Sundays ago, I related to you our dining car experiences while traveling on Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Amtrak trains are part of the transportation industry, a way to get from one place to another.  Trains, however, are not the fastest way to do that.  Going by train from Los Angeles to Chicago takes about forty-three hours, but an airplane covers the same distance in about four and a half hours, about ten times faster. Clearly, if one is in a hurry, trains are not your choice for transportation.

       Many people choose airplanes over trains to go from Los Angeles to Chicago because what they are going to do in Chicago is more important than how they get there. The business traveler is more concerned about the meeting she or he will be attending than the scenery on the way or the people on the conveyance. So why go to Chicago by train instead of an airplane?  For the train traveler, the journey itself is the destination. For those of us who love the steel wheel on the steel rail, the experience of getting there is more important than what happens upon arrival.

       For the Christian, life is a journey whose ultimate destination is oneness with God. We do not know, on a conscious level, what that will be like, or what we will do when that happens. Those estachological things are mysteries beyond human understanding. Yet that ultimate goal is always in the backs of our minds in a place our ordinary intellectual cognition is incapable of reaching and comprehending. What is front and center for us is how we are getting there, that is, our journey called our life.

       The earliest followers of Jesus called themselves, “The Way.” We find that term in several places in the Book of Acts. When Paul was still Saul who persecuted Christians, he asked the high priests of the Temple for documents he could show the local synagogues to identify “followers of The Way” so they could be bound and brought to Jerusalem for prosecution. When Paul was on a teaching mission in Ephesus, he and his disciples walked away from a synagogue where people did not accept the Kingdom of God and spoke ill of the followers of “The Way” whose presence in Ephesus was causing disturbances. Paul later identifies himself as part of “The Way” when he was on trial before Roman governor Felix, who told Paul he was quite familiar with “The Way.”

       So why did the earliest followers of Jesus refer to themselves as “The Way”? Today’s Gospel provides the answer. Jesus, in one of the eight “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life” and that he is the path to God the Father. The Way of Jesus is set out in great detail in the Gospels. For starters, read the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. The Way of Jesus is the way of acceptance of others as is, where is. In the three synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus sat among tax collectors and other sinners and ate with them. Keep in mind that in the time of Jesus in the Middle East, meals were not just about ingesting nourishment. Meal fellowship conveyed an array of non-verbal messages relating to interpersonal relationships.  Sharing a meal expressed hospitality, kinship, friendship, and goodwill.  Hence, because of these considerations, local custom where Jesus lived dictated that meals only be shared with “acceptable” people. But like me, Jesus did not respect human custom when it violated his conscience. He ate with these people anyway, even though his local religious establishment disapproved. With Jesus, however, there is a place at the table for everyone.

Not only did Jesus dine with tax collectors and sinners, throughout the Gospels, but we also find Jesus associating with, healing, feeding, those who were sick and those who were hungry as shown by His numerous healing miracles and the feeding of the large crowds who had come from afar to hear him speak. Moreover, Jesus ministered not to those in his local power establishment, but to those on whom that establishment had officially declared unacceptable, like the Samaritans, who had gone their separate way from Judaism many years before Jesus in a dispute over what books constituted scripture and worship practices. And look at the numerous encounters Jesus had with women, who in His day, placed much lower than men in the hierarchy of a very patriarchal society.

Jesus was, and is, inclusiveness on steroids. The Way of Jesus reflects the inclusiveness of God’s will for us as people.  As Jesus told us in today’s Gospel, in his Father’s house are many mansions. In God’s house, there is a place for everyone. In today’s Gospel, God’s house with many mansions is a metaphor for the church. As Pope Francis has told us, the Church is not a museum for the perfect, but a hospital for sinners.

Sadly, however, the history of the Church is filled with stories of people rejected and cast out of choirs, congregations, and other ecclesiastical entities because they did not meet the norms of the group and/or lived lifestyles of which the group and/or its leaders disapproved. I myself have been the victim of that kind of behavior from people who, for example, didn’t like that I prefer to sing the alto part in the choir or because I am unapologetically high church. So I’m not just talking about indelible characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, and similar classifications of individuals who’ve been the target of invidious discrimination, but those whose lives have been less than perfect or not what we prefer. For them, the church is here to heal and to help, not to pass judgment on them and make them feel unwelcome.

When you own a business, you can decide who your customers and employees are. You can’t operate a profitable business without this level of selectivity. As one who was self-employed for thirty years before I retired at the end of August, twenty fifteen, I did exactly that. I did not hire everyone who applied for a job with me, and I fired employees who misbehaved or were incompetent. And on more than one occasion, I refused to do business with certain clients. The fact is, there were people out there who did not have the skills and demeanor that I needed and who did not have the means or desire to pay me for my work. And I even excluded some otherwise qualified employees and customers because I couldn’t stand their personalities, their values, their lifestyle, their financial choices, or even their appearance. As a business owner, I had an absolute right to discriminate against employees and customers as long as I did not do so in an illegal way based on their immutable characteristics. For example, I knew full well, and accepted, the risk of turning away an otherwise qualified receptionist because she had visible tattoos because I did not want that kind of image to represent my law firm to people walking in the front door.

That same receptionist, however, would be welcome to worship and otherwise fully participate here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. What’s the difference? A church is not, I repeat, not, a business. The difference is that although a church must cover its expenses, it does not exist to make a monetary profit for earthly owners by providing goods and/or services to customers who pay money to the business. A church has no owners except God. Whatever profit a church makes is a spiritual profit due to  God alone. Unlike a secular business, a church gives of itself in a sacrificial way to those who encounter it without any thought of earning a return on its expenditures the way a business owner might expect when buying equipment or paying vendors. Just as Jesus sacrificed himself for the whole world, the church is a sacrifice from those who serve it to those it serves.

The church does not exist to serve a select few, but all the people of God, as is, where is. As pope Francis told us, the church is a place intended to heal imperfect people, much as a hospital heals sick and injured people. The hospital is a very apt metaphor for what a church should be. Hospitals don’t exist to serve healthy people, but those who are sick and injured. Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals care for those who are infirm without judgment. Imagine a gunfight that ends up with wounded police officers and wounded suspects. They are all rushed to a hospital. The health care professionals will work earnestly, to the very best of their ability, to save the lives of both the police and the suspects. Nor does a hospital turn away a smoker with lung cancer or a person injured in an attempted suicide. There is no question that smokers and those who attempt suicide have made unwise choices. But does the hospital let them die because they chose unwisely? No! The hospital’s job is to make cancer go away and fix the injuries of the person who attempted suicide.

So too must the church. Church groups are filled with people who have made unwise choices, in particular, deliberate choices to sin, that is, to miss the mark by not meeting what God expects of humanity. Yet the church remains an ever-present house with many mansions, a place for all, existing to provide empathy, comfort, and compassion. Those kinds of feelings are what will help people make better future choices. Jesus calls us, when we encounter someone in distress, not to judge that person, but to serve that person. Our duties in that regard are very well explained in Matthew twenty-five.

That is where Deacons enter the picture. As Jesus said several times during His earthly ministry, “Lo, I am among you as one who serves.”  To emulate Jesus in the role of a servant is the unique charism of the Diaconate. The word Deacon comes from the Greek word, “Diakanos” meaning “servant.” In today’s first reading, the Greek word used to describe the tasks for those called to serve food to the widows is “Diakoneo” is a form of the Greek verb “to serve” and has the same root as “Diakonos” which, translated to English, is “Deacon. Simply put, the ministry of a Deacon is a ministry that personifies service to others.

Sharon and I, as well as our bishop, were all ordained as Deacons, in my case, and that of Bishop Armando, as a transitional Deacon.  We each promised to be, in the first instance, servants. The Diaconate is uniquely a ministry of service to others. The best analogy that comes to mind is to imagine the church as a restaurant. God owns the restaurant. The Bishops are the managers. The Priests are the cooks. And the Deacons are the waiters and waitresses who serve the people of God. Indeed, the Gospel reading for the Ordination of Deacons from Luke is about the argument about who is the greatest, leading to the conclusion that the greatest of all is one who serves others.

The necessity of Deacons in the church arose because, as we read throughout the Book of Acts and the books that follow it in the New Testament, followers of “The Way” went from being a Jewish sect to be inclusive on non-Jews as well. The desire of the Apostles to be inclusive, to feed both the Greek and the Hebrew widows, drove the appointment of the first individuals to carry out a diaconal ministry. Therefore, by definition, the very purpose of being a Deacon is to serve all of the people of God, not a select few of them. Church, by its nature, is inclusive. The church is the people of God, in the glory of all their similarities and differences.

The church is the people of God existing to serve the people of God. A church is not a building. It is not a physical place. A church is its people. People, not buildings, carry on the mission of the church. A church that does not have any people is merely a building, not a church. But the people are the church even without the building.  In the beginning years of the Church found in the New Testament, there was no such thing as a church building. The first Eucharists were held in people’s homes, and had women clergy, as the sixteenth chapter of Epistle to the Romans tells us.

Indeed, the word “church” appears in the canonical gospels only three times, all in Matthew. If you go to the Greek text, which is the actual language in which the Gospels originated, you will find that “church” is a translation of the Greek word “ekklesia” which means an assembly of people. In contrast, the Greek text uses in the gospels word the word “oikos” to mean a physical structure. The word “ekklesia” does appear in the Book of Acts and throughout the letters of the New Testament as well as in Revelation. It always refers to an assembly of people, never a building. Hence, a church is, in the words of today’s Second Reading, built of living stones, not stones and bricks that commonly make up a building. The living stones that comprise Saint Cecilia Catholic Community are the people who worship here, not the cinderblocks of its walls the separate us from the world outside. We, as a community, exist independently of our physical space. As human persons who are the living stones that make up the church, we are fundamentally different from the stones that comprise a building. We have the ability to absorb information, to think, and to decide who we are and what we shall be. We have the ability to decide to follow the way of Jesus. We are not inorganic pieces of rock. We breathe. We have beating hearts. We are alive. We are human.

But, if in fact, the church were a building, it would be, to paraphrase today’s Gospel, a house with many mansions. God’s mansion is a figurative big tent for all of humanity, all of whom were created in God’s image and likeness, and to use the words of today’s Second Reading, chosen and precious in God’s sight.

The mission of the church is simply stated in today’s Second Reading. The church is an assembly of persons who rejected living stones become cornerstones. I’ve been kicked to the curb in church many times, only to be resurrected here as a cornerstone. Consistent with the teaching of Jesus to not do to others what I would not like done to me, my goal at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is to reach out to and heal those who have been rejected at other churches and make them into cornerstones. Here, we have become an assembly that has welcomed transgendered persons as lay preachers, gay men to serve as priests, lesbian women to serve at the Altar, and less than perfect singers and instrumentalists to give glory to God through music.

We are, in the words of today’s Second Reading, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, [and] a holy nation” called out of darkness into the light of the Gospel. We have a mission to carry out, a mission to be the Way of Jesus in a secular world. All of us are priests with a small “p”. The essence of priesthood is two-fold. First, it is to offer sacrifices, and second, it is to be a gateway to God for others.  All Christians at their baptism promised to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Jesus, to seek and serve Jesus in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every being. We do this by sacrificial giving of ourselves and our personal behavior.

The way of Jesus helps us deal with life. We, as Christians, are called to live our unfailing conviction that Jesus is the Way that leads to God the Father. Now more than ever, we look to the Way of Jesus to help us navigate our world. But Jesus represents not only the way but truth and light as well. Jesus calls us to be seekers of truth and to shine light into the dark corners of ignorance.

In those dark corners things arise what we do not expect. Our lives are full of surprises, both positive and negative, although the negative part is a matter of current and grave concern by way of the global pandemic known as the coronavirus.  There is much about that virus that humanity does not know; scientists are learning more about it every day, sometimes changing their conclusions when they obtain new information. The urgency and consequences of the present situation challenge those who tend to capture an idea and don’t let go of it when they encounter facts than challenge their philosophical assumptions, somewhat like the church sticking to the idea that earth is flat and at the center of the Universe despite unequivocal scientific proof that the earth revolves around the sun and that the sun is one of billions of stars. As a contemporary example, look at the change in medical opinion on hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure for the coronavirus.  At first, it was thought to be a miracle drug, but now it is anything but that. In fact, it harms patients.

Following the way of Jesus is the byproduct of our faith in Jesus, that is, our unfailing trust and loyalty to Him as our Savior and Lord whose real presence is made known to us in the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life. The feelings we experience in receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus not only recall the story of his passion and resurrection but bless us to give us the strength to go about our business. We need that more than ever right now. That is why, throughout these challenging times, Saint Cecilia Catholic Community has continued to celebrate Sunday morning Mass despite the pandemic, and will continue to do so. To those who are worshipping with us online, I have but one word: courage. This too will pass, but all the while, the way of Jesus leads to eternity with God, our ultimate destination. AMEN.