Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
I had trouble beginning to write this sermon because the only thing I could think about is that Rachel Held Evans is dead. She was 37 years old. It’s weird to write about her with past-tense verbs, but it’s the truth, and so I’m working with it. She was a writer, a theologian, a blogger, a friend, a woman of valor, and a devoted disciple of her Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Rachel was a former evangelical Christian who dedicated much of her life to figuring out just what it was that God was calling her to, and how to make sure that other people could figure that out, too. She made her own way in Christianity when there wasn’t space for her, and she brought everyone else who wanted to come along. She celebrated the sacred worth of every person, especially the historically marginalized and minoritized. In her sweet Tennessee accent she pronounced blessings on women, queer folks, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, doubters, seekers, and people who might fit into most of those categories at once. She was kind, and she was authentic, and she was faithful.
Last Saturday, many hundreds—if not thousands—of people took to Twitter, in particular, to collectively mourn Rachel’s death. There were several hashtags we were using to share our grief, and one of my favorites that popped up was #SaintRachel.
Historically, saints of the church are ordinary people who are recognized as having been exceptionally holy in their earthly life; in some denominations, like Roman Catholicism, there is a formal process for being canonized as a saint, and in the Lutheran tradition, it’s actually everyone who ever lives and dies. Somewhere between those two is an option for Rachel, I think, which is that while I might recognize her, like everyone, as simultaneously saint and sinner, she leaned heavily on the saint side of that equation.
And if you’re imaging Rachel in your mind’s eye now—a glowing southern lady, smiling and wearing a cardigan—you’ll probably be surprised to know that I think she was a lot like John the Baptist. The scripture for tonight does not feature John the Baptist, but I’ll get us there, don’t worry. I’m placing Rachel Held Evans adjacent to Saint John the Baptizer because it is unreasonable to compare anyone too closely to Jesus the Christ—we only have one savior, and though we loved Rachel, she was not it—but it makes perfect sense to group her with John because over and over and over again she pointed the way to Jesus.
John the Baptist, you may recall, ran on ahead of Jesus, telling everyone that he was coming, and what he would do when he did. Rachel was, perhaps, a mirror to John, in that she ran many centuries behind Jesus, telling everyone that he had come, and what we should do because he did.
She was in the wilderness between Evangelical and mainline protestant Christianity a lot of the time, sure of very little besides the truth that she was—and that each of us are—beloved by God. She knew this, and so she wrote and she read and she questioned and she doubted and she struggled and she laughed and she welcomed and she prophesied and she wondered and she prayed and she ate and she sang and she inspired me and many others to turn, again and again, to the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Rachel was not one of the twelve fishermen that Jesus gathered at the beginning of his ministry, and she was not one of the men that ate breakfast with him on the beach in tonight’s Gospel story. But she was a disciple. She was disciplined in her love for her fellow outcasts and wanderers; she was disciplined in her openness to learning new things that changed her mind; she was disciplined in her rebuke of the sins of her former Christianity, calling out bigotry where it continued; she was disciplined in her support of other doubters and cautious believers; she was disciplined in her amplifying of other voices and writers, especially those that had been silenced by their churches. She was a disciple.
She wrote four best-selling books and a zillion blog posts and essays and articles that have appeared all over the place. I have two of her books in my office that you can borrow, and one at my house that I can bring here if you want to borrow that, too. Why am I telling you all of this tonight? Because sometimes we open up the Bible and we read a weird story about a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and a weird story about singing creatures, and weird story about fish for breakfast and feeding of sheep, and we don’t really know what any of that has to do with us. We need each other—to wonder about these things together, to sometimes agree to disagree, and to show each other the way. Rachel was one of the people I relied on—more than I knew, until she died—to show me the way.
When I wonder about what my role is in the feeding of the sheep, the building up of the body of Christ, the fishing for people, the casting out demons, the healing of the sick, when I’m just me, I get stuck. But I am reminded by Rachel and by you and by the rest of my great cloud of witnesses that I’m not just me. I’m me, among you. You’re you, among us. You may not see yourself as one of these saints, confidently carrying on the work of Jesus in the world, but you are. You, being you, is what God loves.
We talked about that on Monday for spirituality group, as we finished up our week-long practice of “choosing joy.” It was a tough week for me to practice choosing joy, and that was all the more reason to do it. We chatted about that toughness, since there is so much going on the world that brings us not-joy. But we noticed the small things that made us smile, and we kept noticing those small things, until there were so many of them that it was hard not to notice them everywhere! And we were able, by looking at our lives through the lens of joy, to notice just how many things were going on in our day-to-day lives that were unremarkable, but joyful.
We choose joy with our friends and family, and the miracle of the tiny sprouts in my backyard that will one day be food that we will eat, and the colorful doodles in our notebooks, and the delight of our favorite snacks, and the sunshine being so inviting, and even a pair of holographic roller skates. These things may not seem holy to you at first glance, because they are just part of your life.
But that turns out to be just it! This is our life. This is what there is. God loves us as we are, in our routines and our boringness and our humanness. God doesn’t love some ideal version of you, but the real you. God loves who you are, and who you are becoming.
Rachel was and I am and you are all shining examples of that oft-quoted thing: “God does not call the equipped but equips the called.” Technically, that sort of says like “you’re a hot mess but God is working with it” and you know what, some days that is the Gospel to me, friends.
You may think that being a disciple means being perfect, or knowing everything about God, or always believing everything about Jesus, but you only need to look at these dudes in these stories to know that that could not be further from the truth.
Saint Peter is, with all due respect, an absolute dolt. He and the rest of the twelve disciples make all sorts of questionable choices and ask Jesus all sorts of questions that you might expect them to already know the answer to, and Jesus mostly just chuckles softly and tells them a story. And they are now saints of the church and the examples we hold up as hallmarks of the Christian life!
So, dear ones, that’s it. You’re a disciple, congratulations, keep up the good work. Continue to be disciplined in your love for one another. Continue to be disciplined in your welcoming of new people to our dinner table and to your classrooms and to all the communities you belong to. Continue to be disciplined in your asking of the big questions, the ones that keep you up at night or the ones you’re almost too embarrassed to ask. Continue to be disciplined in your belief that everyone—including you—is loved by God, and deserves to be treated as a full and beautiful human being. Continue to get a little ahead of yourself and jump out of the boat every once in a while. You’re in good company, with the whole communion of saints.
As Rachel said, in 2017: “You have the sacraments. You have the call. You have the Holy Spirit. You have one another. You have a God who knows the way out of the grave. You have everything you need. You just need to show up and be faithful.”