Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2024

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

At one point, my grandmother worked a second job in a bakery.  She got up in the wee hours every morning to help make ends meet and put my dad through school.  Now, I am not much of a baker.  But, over the years, I have been actively involved in Kairos prison ministry.  Kairos bears witness to the life-changing power of Jesus in prisons.  

And, if you don’t know anything else about it, you may have heard about the cookies.  Thousands and thousands of cookies for every weekend are brought into the prison.  The members of the team recruit members of our churches to help bake cookies.  And that’s one way that those who are not called to work inside the prison are able to participate in our ministry.

And so, about fifteen years ago, when Rachel was about ten, Tracey and I helped her to bake thirty dozen cookies.  One night, I came home with a grocery bag full of dough.  And, once Danny was in bed, we baked these cookies in batches of sixteen, until way past Rachel’s bedtime.  (It was after midnight when we all got to bed.)  We prayed for the men who would eat the cookies.  And we blessed each cookie sheet before we put it into the oven.  

The cookies are very meaningful for the prisoners.  So too are the letters and posters they receive–telling them about prayers that are being said all over the world for them.  Many of these folks never receive a visitor.  Imagine what it’s like for them to eat a cookie that’s been baked with love and prayer.

In Kairos, the cookies aren’t just snack food.  They are signs of God’s love and of Christian community.  They represent the Church outside the walls, and the God who never forgets us.  

We give the cookies to the prisoners, and we urge them to share them with their neighbors.  (Prison is not a neighborly place.)  We also give them to staff.  It builds a huge buzz for Kairos–and it adds to the waiting list for the next weekend.  It also keeps the decision-makers on our side.  Often, once Kairos has been operating for a while, the staff start to testify to changed lives and a reduction in violence.  

At the end of the weekend, people who aren’t on the team come into the prison and join us for Sunday worship.  It is a surprise for the prisoners, often an overwhelming one.  There are also monthly reunion groups, where we come back to the prison for fellowship, Bible study, worship, and prayer.  We keep on coming back, over and over and over again, long after other groups have come and left, in order to show the prisoners that Jesus loves them–and that they are never, ever alone.

Many of you probably remember the definition of a sacrament from the Prayer Book Catechism:  “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace….”  The Catechism goes on to teach about Baptism and the Eucharist, and the other sacramental rites observed in this church.  And then it adds something startling.  It says that “God does not limit himself to these rites. They are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.”

Every meal we eat is sacramental.  From the family dinner table, to a candlelight dinner for two, to fried chicken on a prison basketball court with chocolate pudding for dessert, all of it is sacramental.  So too are birthday cards, Christmas gifts, wedding rings, handshakes, and hugs–or a cookie offered to a friend.

Baking cookies with Tracey and Rachel was one of the most labor intensive, inefficient ways to do ministry that I have ever seen.  But it was also among the most fun and the most rewarding. It took at least six or seven hours to bake that many cookies.  I could have gotten the job done in twenty minutes if I had just gone to Kroger.  But that would be missing the point. 

In the sacraments, the reverence and beauty of our actions matters. As Marva Dawn once wrote, worship is a “royal waste of time.”  Witness the long prayers we say at a baptism or at the celebration of the Eucharist.  God is preparing ordinary water to wash our sins away.  God is changing bread and wine to feed us with the body and blood of Jesus.  We take great care (we spend a lot of time) to set these things apart for God’s service.  We take pains to connect these symbols to the story of our salvation.  The sacraments are not utilitarian.  They are a “royal waste of time.”  They are dramatic works of art that God is using to prepare us for the Kingdom.  

A store-bought cookie might serve the same purpose.  But not as well. We need a cookie that’s been prayed and sweated over in a family’s kitchen.  The irregular shapes and imperfections of our cookies distinguish them from what’s been mass-produced.  And so, they speak not only of God’s love but of home and community and the ties that bind us together.

That brings me to the Epistle, which has been on my mind from the beginning.  “God is love, (we read.)  God is love.”  John describes how God sent Jesus to live for us sinners–to die for us and rise again in the flesh. And he tells us that, if God loves us this way, so too we ought to love one another.  “Those who say ‘I love God’ but hate their brothers and sisters are liars, (he says).  For we can’t love God, whom we don’t even see, unless we love the neighbors we do see.”

God gives us other people to show us how to love.  That’s how we root ourselves in the vine.  That’s how we bear fruit for God.

If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.