Not What You Have Lost

Not What You Have Lost

Homily for Easter 3 by The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates

May 1, 2022

Not What You Have Lost

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2022
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates

“Not What You Have Lost”

Two weeks ago we saw scenes of renewed in-person celebrations of Easter around the world, after two years of subdued and virtual observance.  There were, as always, clips of the celebration at the historic center of Western Christianity, St. Peter’s Square in Rome. That scene brought back the recollection of my experience twenty years ago, when I spent several weeks in Rome.  Most of that time I was in a study course at the Anglican Centre in Rome, which serves as an educational institution and as a sort of embassy from the Anglican Communion to the Vatican.

On two occasions I attended the regular weekday papal audience in St. Peter’s Square.  The scene was quite moving to me, even as a non-Roman Catholic.  Thousands of eager pilgrims, tourists, and just plain curious people cheered the arrival of Pope John Paul II in his “pope-mobile.”  John Paul offered an address of 6 or 8 minutes to the crowd in Latin, and then he repeated it in Italian, and then in French, English, German, Polish, and Spanish!  Throughout the ceremony various groups in the crowd would pop up and serenade the gathering with sacred and festival songs in their native tongue.  The Lord’s Prayer was said simultaneously by thousands, each in their native language.  The whole thing was a real Pentecost scene, full of excitement and the babble of the world.

What was even more striking to me than the festal spirit was the public dignity of John Paul’s suffering.  Already in 2001 the physically vital man we had seen in the ‘80s and ‘90s had grown weak.  His speech was slow and notably slurred.  The Parkinson’s “mask” had descended upon his face.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal after one of those gatherings:

Surrounded by all the grandeur and glory of the Vatican, when I watch John Paul I am struck by the brokenness of his beauty; and I am struck by the beauty in his brokenness.  Near the end of his address, having repeated it seven times in different languages, the Pope paused slowly to wipe the spittle off his chin.  Then he looked down and wiped off the cuff of his silk vestment where he had dribbled.  Then, he lifted the same arm, and with it he blessed us. [AMG journal, Wed., June 20, 2001]

John Paul II refused to be defined by what he had lost.  He lost mobility.  He lost dignity. He lost speech.  Yet he determined at every point to continue to do what he could do.  To undertake a new thing, even when many old things were passing away.  He refused to be defined as simply someone who couldn’t get around; someone whose speech was impaired; someone who had lost his dignity.  He was not defined by what he had lost.  He was defined by what he remained eager and able to do.  To lead his own flock.  To pray and to bless and to chastise and to reconcile.  Of course, many of us have witnessed such courage and beauty in the diminishment of others we have known personally.  John Paul was not unique in this—but he was very public.

As in the accounts of other resurrection appearances, the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson from John [21:1–19] are grieving their own losses.  They have lost their master and teacher.  They have lost their expectation of a Messiah.  They have lost their ability even to believe good news which most of them had actually seen with their own eyes.  Today’s story comes after the two appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples, behind closed doors, in which he had stood among them, breathed the Spirit upon them, and showed them his wounds.  But now, even after those singular moments, the disciples are evidently still in a kind of stupor, still reeling from disorientation, without direction.  So they do what we do in such moments of grief.  They fall back on something familiar, something they know.  In this passage, seven of the remaining eleven disciples have gone back to the thing they had always done before Jesus came along.  They’ve returned to their boats and their nets. Who could blame them?

The grief and loss of those disciples was real.  But in their repeated encounters with the risen Christ the disciples eventually found hope and confidence to move beyond their grief.  They found a way to define themselves not by what they had lost, but by what they had found—the strength of a new, real presence in their lives.  The confidence and hope of God’s ultimate victory.  And in today’s account, Jesus tells them precisely where to begin to emerge from their grief-stricken numbness:  “Do you love me? Feed my lambs. … Do you love me? Tend my sheep. … Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.”  Faced with grief and loss, uncertain about the next first steps, the disciples hear Jesus’ invitation:  start simple; start with what you know; reach back to the core of what I taught you.  Tend my sheep.

Photo Credit: Martha Bancroft

We have faced our own losses in the past two years, you and I.  We have been diminished.  Diminished in our ways of being together.  Diminished in our capacity to worship with full body and voice.  Diminished in opportunities, diminished in numbers.  Of course, in many settings the pandemic has only accelerated a sense of depletion and loss that has been underway for a very long time.  The church simply does not hold the place in society which it once did.  It is commonplace to attach the label “post-Christendom” to the age we have entered.  And this is borne out for many of us by half-empty churches; under-utilized Church School classrooms; competition with Sunday morning sports; and the whole familiar litany of ways that “church just isn’t like it used to be.”

Yet alongside all those losses are signs of the Easter resurrection which we claim.  Like the chionodoxa and daffodils pushing out of the ground around us, so many of our churches are refusing to be defined by what they have lost, seizing instead upon gifts and opportunities they have, and blossoming anew.  Like the disciples, they are hearing and responding to Jesus’s foundational commandment: Tend my sheep.

At St. Paul’s, Newburyport, empty church school rooms are now home for two families of Afghan refugees, supported on their journey to new life by parishioners and townsfolk alike.  Tend my sheep.

At Christ Church, Swansea, military veterans at risk from loneliness are welcomed, through the Building Bridges ministry, into a place of connection, conversation, and community.  Tend my sheep.

At St. John’s, Lowell, middle school youth, most from immigrant families, come for arts and crafts and cooking classes, and a safe place to be before their parents arrive home. Tend my sheep.

In every corner of the diocese, members are participating in Sacred Ground and manifold ways of engaging with the work of anti-racism, telling the truth, listening humbly, and determining not to deny the sin of racism within our structures and within ourselves, striving to repair broken relationships and broken systems.  Tend my sheep.

In every corner of the diocese, clergy and laity have found creative ways to reach and support those isolated by the pandemic.  Tend my sheep.

Here we are, you and I.  If we are Easter People, as Christians rejoice to be, then we, too, must not define ourselves primarily by what we have lost.  Perhaps we have lost plenty—both institutionally and individually.  Lost size or prominence.  Lost influence or prestige. Lost jobs, some of us.  Lost our youthful idealism, many of us.  Lost familiar patterns, most of us.  Lost parents, or children, or friends—all of us.  Lost physical abilities.  Lost dignity. Lost confidence. In all of this our losses are real, real like those of John Paul II, real like those of the grieving disciples.  But the Easter message calls us never to allow such loss to be our final word or to define us.

Through grief and regret, may we ever contemplate not what we cannot do, but what we can; not what we do not have, but what we do; not what we have lost, but what we have gained—and stand to gain, through our sharing with the Risen Christ in the new life of grace.  “Grace” is the word, and grace is the gift which we are promised, if we are not blind to its potential in our lives.

Christ is risen, and we are risen with him.  Alleluia, Amen.

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