Prayer is the Answer to Jesus’ Prayer, Easter 7 (A) – May 28, 2017

[RCL] Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Jesus prayed. The Gospels reveal that prayer remained the constant refrain of Jesus’ life. Jesus prays frequently and fervently. Why would he of all people need to pray? First, Jesus was God made man, and so he had emptied himself to become human and some things were no longer possible for Jesus. For example, if he were in Galilee, he would not also be in Jerusalem. Jesus was bound by time and space. Secondly, Jesus had also always been connected to the Father and the Holy Spirit in ways that are mysterious to us. They are one and yet three. If that is difficult to get your mind around, that is fine. After all, a God you can fully comprehend isn’t much of a deity. But we see that Jesus prayed as a part of this ongoing relationship within the Trinity. Finally, Jesus prayed to be an example to his followers. We see this most fully on the night before he died. All of the Gospels tell of Jesus praying fervently that night. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear only that Jesus prayed for the cup to pass from him. He did not want to die, but even so, Jesus submitted himself to God’s will.

In our Gospel reading, we get a deeper glimpse into Jesus’ prayer that evening. In chapter 17 of John’s Gospel, which we read part of this morning, Jesus prays. Our reading starts, “Jesus looked up to heaven and said…”

Those words matter, as they tell the reader that what follows is a prayer. The prayer is not written to us. Jesus is talking with God the Father. John gives us not just the content of the prayer, but also the character of Jesus in writing down this prayer for us. Jesus says, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” In John’s Gospel, the word glory points to the cross. It is in his faithfulness unto death that Jesus glorified God.

In Jesus’ words in this prayer, we learn that Jesus values those who believe in him as a cherished gift from God. And in the final lines of our reading this morning, Jesus prayed, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Jesus wanted those who follow him to be protected, not from bodily harm, but from falling away from the faith. And most of all he wanted us to be one as he and the Father are one. This could reduce the prayer to a plea for Christian unity, but that is not all that is going on here. Yes, Jesus would pray for those who follow him to be one in a way that makes unity among Christian denominations an important goal. But here, Jesus is praying for our protection, and for that to happen, he calls us to be drawn into the relationship of love that is the very Trinity. Jesus and the Father are one in a way that goes beyond simple agreement, like, or love. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one at their essence through relationship. Jesus prays for that sort of deeper relationship for us. This is Jesus’ prayer before dying; his dying wish is for those who know him to be drawn into an abiding connection to him and his Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus had already demonstrated what an abiding connection to God looks like. Throughout his life, he had taken regular times for prayer both public and private—both liturgical prayers of synagogue and Temple worship and spontaneous prayers offered on various occasions. Jesus maintained his connection to God in good times and bad, in times of triumph, and in the agony of the cross.

With only a few years in which to change the world forever, Jesus should have been a workaholic. Yes, he was faulted for breaking the Sabbath to heal and for letting his disciples pick grain to eat. But instead of being a workaholic, Jesus enabled others to minister as well.

We find in the Gospel what Jesus prayed, but we should also notice that Jesus prayed. His life is soon to end. He is in the last hours with his disciples. Rather than fitting in an all-night cram session to get the last bit of theological information into his disciples’ heads, Jesus pauses and prays. If you ever wonder what would Jesus do, the primary answer is that Jesus would pray. How much more should we first and foremost pray in all the chances and changes that life sends our way?

God will honor the arrow prayers you shoot heavenward in times of need, but you will find yourself more fully connected to God if you set aside routine times to pray. The pattern for The Episcopal Church is found in the brief Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, and even in the one-page devotions tucked into the Prayer Book. Making daily times for these prayers will not earn God’s favor; you already have been given that grace freely. Instead, the daily times of prayer will ground your day in connection to the Holy Trinity.

This was Jesus’ will for you. Jesus wanted you to find and nurture that deep, abiding connection to God. Jesus wanted it so much that he prayed for you to get that sort of relationship and then he trusted his Father in heaven to enable it to happen. Your answer to Jesus’ prayer is found when you make time to pray and so grow closer to the God who knows you fully and loves you completely.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting.

 

Download the sermon for Easter 7(A).

The Right Things at the Right Time, Ascension Day – May 25, 2017

(RCL) Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

Crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. All in a little over forty days.

From sadness to guilt, to hopelessness, to fear, to doubt, to hopefulness, the feelings of the disciples have been a roller coaster.

Jesus has told the disciples that he had to suffer, but would be raised in three days. Did they believe him? No! Peter even rebuked Jesus, saying that this could not happen, leading to Jesus calling him Satan. Then Jesus was arrested. And then Jesus was crucified. In three days, the stone was removed, and the tomb was empty. Angels and even Jesus himself appeared to tell his followers that he was raised, and still they doubted! He had to show up inside locked doors, on the road to Emmaus walking with some disciples, and by the beach to cook breakfast with them, just to convince them that he was raised.

Now, forty days after his resurrection, once again, Jesus recapped what he had told the disciples before: that he is to fulfill the Scriptures.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

 The disciples had not been able to understand what the life and ministry of Jesus were about while he was with them before, so Jesus told them one last time while he was still among them. He commissioned the disciples to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations,” and that they should begin this proclamation in Jerusalem.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the author talks about Jesus being “carried up into heaven.” The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

In the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, the author elaborates on the reactions of the apostles: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Yes, their rabbi is really gone! These disciples are at a loss again. God is showing steadfast love, sending these two messengers to remind them not just to stand and look up, but to look around, look ahead, and look toward the work they must do. They must proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations.” They must be witnesses to what just happened. And they must not worry; they will receive the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission. Jesus has promised to send the Paraclete, the advocate in his absence, the power from on high. Jesus has told them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for it.

Going through something traumatic, it is easy to dwell on the past or fantasize about the future, but it is not easy to stay in the present. However, the present is exactly where Jesus wants the disciples to be.

Now the disciples should realize they are not only followers anymore, but also leaders. They cannot only stand there, looking up toward heaven. Rather, they need to follow Jesus’ commission, and they need to get into action. Nevertheless, before their action, before the Holy Spirit is bestowed on them, they need to reflect, to pray, and to bless God.

The verses after today’s reading from the Book of Acts tell us that, “When [the disciples] had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying . . . All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13a, 14).

Finally, the disciples’ minds are opened to understand the Scriptures and the purpose of Jesus’ teaching. The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:53). As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians, “With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”

From then on, the disciples of Jesus set up the Church and proclaimed the repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus to all nations. That is how we have had the Good News passed to us.

They have set a great example for us, the later followers. When we are at a loss, before we carry out our call, we need to pray and bless God, being in the very presence of God.

In our divided world, things seem to have changed for the worse. Life seems to be upside-down, with racial tension, terrorist attacks, chaos in the Middle East, and so much more. We may be like the disciples, with the tendency to look upward and not see the present, our call. But no, we must stay in the present, grounding ourselves in Jesus the Christ to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name, and bearing witness to the grace of God.

We have been celebrating the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, looking forward to being in God’s kingdom in the future. But it is not for us to know when or how. The Eastertide is about to end. We know in order to get to Easter, we had to go through Good Friday. Now, with the hope of that blessed day, we are not afraid of suffering. The time to get in action is here. It is not an easy task, but we will not be alone; the Holy Spirit will be with us. Stay tuned and stay in the presence of God. Amen.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest-in-Charge and Director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation speaking English and Cantonese in Chinatown. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, a Chinese Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, also in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009 to 2016. She loves hiking and meditative walking. 

Download the sermon for Ascension Day.

 

Being a Witness for the God We Know, Easter 6 (A) – May 21, 2017

[RCL] Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

The Book of Acts is filled with miracles, visions, and dreams, and in it, the author, Luke, helps us establish the identity of God and shows how the Gospel of Jesus Christ was spread to every corner of the world.

In addition to teaching about the identity of God, Luke has much to say about the power of the grace of God and the initiatives God takes in forming witnesses for mission. Luke penned for us a road map to being a witness for the God we know.

The second part of the Book of Acts focuses on the story of Paul. And that is where we find ourselves on this Sixth Sunday of Easter. Paul said to the people of Athens, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him– though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:22b-28a).

We are familiar with Paul; he is known for his eloquent speeches and great witness to Christ, and there is much we can learn from him. Following his conversion experience, he became one of the greatest teachers ever, one of the greatest evangelists ever. Paul’s view of the spiritual life can serve as a foundation for a contemporary evangelical spirituality.

Paul knew God. Paul was in right relationship with God. And when you are in right relationship with someone, you want to defend them at all costs. That is what Paul is doing in Athens. He realizes that the Athenians do not know much about anything because they do not know the first thing about the God he serves.

And he goes on to do something very important that we in the modern Church can recognize, understand, and appreciate. Even though he was deeply distressed by all the idols of the city, he did not get up on that large rock and point his finger at the people of Athens, telling them that they would go straight to hell because of their idol worship and their non-Christian ways of living. Rather, he speaks to their culture, through their culture, in a way that acknowledged their worthiness as children of God. He was a true witness of the God he served.

Paul begins to tell them about this unknown God that they already are trying to worship. Note that Paul does not condemn the Athenians for who they are; nor does he begin with what separates them, but with what they have in common. Remember that the next time you are a witness to the God you know.

Paul knew God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He knew God as the One who keeps promises. He knew God as a God of a second chance, and a God that saves, a God that can convert. He knew God as a God of love. Paul told one group that God was a “living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea” (Acts 14:15), and he told the people of Athens that he was the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Who do you know God as? Who do we know God as? We cannot tell of something or someone that we do not know. As Christians, we know God as a way-maker, as a provider, as the author of our books called Life. The God we know is fair and just, generous and good. Our God is a loving, healing God. A right-on-time God. The God we know is a forgiving, gracious God because heaven knows we do not get it right all the time. We know God as Redeemer, Reconciler, Restorer and Resurrector, just to name a few.

That is who we know God as. And the God we serve proves this over and over and over again. The God we serve places the right people in the right places to make things happen at the right time, giving us unmerited favor. And the God we serve makes a way when there seems to be no way.

Sadly, there are individuals who do not know this God. Painfully, the knowledge of the God we know is not everywhere you turn, because people do not really know who God is, and what God has done, and can do. God, for some, is only a God to question or blame or accuse or even curse when things go wrong. Many people believe that God is some sort of vengeful deity that must be appeased by good behavior, just in case! But that is not the God that Paul proclaimed.

As Paul tells us, there really is a God who loves everyone, especially you and me! And yes, our enemies as well. A God who came to serve us. Our God, who has given everyone life and being, and is interested in every little part of your life, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

God’s love, care, and identity have been made abundantly clear in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. That God should be known by everyone!

And therein lies our responsibility as Christians. We must bear witness to the God we know. In the person and work of Jesus, all the doubts and fears and anxieties over the “unknown God” happily disappear. God is not a distant, uncaring God. God is a very close and personal God.

So who do you know God as? Who do we know God as? Do we live, move and have our being in God?! We cannot tell of something accurately if we do not know for ourselves, first-hand. You cannot give directions to a place if you do not know where it is. Similarly, we cannot share a God we do not know for ourselves with others, or people will get lost.

We are charged with being a witness for the God we know. We are charged with telling somebody about this God. Tell people about the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ. Our God should no longer be unknown. Our God is too good and too generous to remain that way.

God is the God who is known by loving-kindness to us, shown in the One who lived and died and rose again, so that we too might live with God. Each time we approach God’s altar, we are saying, “We believe. We believe in a God whose only begotten Son died for us all.” We are saying, “God, You are in me and I in You.”

But it does not stop there. When we make our way to God’s altar and ultimately out of the doors of the church, that is where the real work begins. We are all called to be witnesses to the God we know – and our lives, our beings, our very essence should always, always reflect that.

It is like the hymn writer penned, inspired by the Song of Mary, mother of Jesus,

“Tell out, my soul, the glories of God’s Word! Firm is God promise, and God’s mercy sure. Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord to children’s children and for evermore!”

We have got work to do. Amen.

 

The Rev. Arlette D. Benoit Joseph is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Before seminary, Rev. Joseph worked as a Marketing Analyst for UPS Mail Innovations in Atlanta, Ga, where she managed Account Representatives and their Customer Care Department.

 She was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta and now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, Ga., as Associate to the Rector. Rev. Joseph also serves as Campus Missioner for the Absalom Jones Center of the Atlanta University Center. She serves as a consultant to the The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries by planning the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults and works with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop and promote The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — an initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

 She also serves on the Diocese of Atlanta’s Commission of Ministry, as the Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries of The Episcopal Church and as a boardmember for FORMA – a network of Christian Formation professionals. Rev. Joseph is passionate about Christian and Spiritual Formation and the spiritual and mental wellness of clergy.

Originally from the twin island Republic Trinidad and Tobago, Rev. Joseph enjoys Caribbean cuisine and outdoor activities with her husband.

 

Download the sermon for Easter 6 (A).

Our Particular Community, Easter 5 (A) – May 14, 2017

[RCL] Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

The Scriptures this morning draw us to reflect on what it means to be community. We each have our own communities that we come here from on Sunday, but we are part of the larger community of the Christian faith—a community in which we can gather and from which we can gain wisdom, rejuvenation, and identity. Within each of our larger units of community, there are smaller ones, such as our families, our friendship circles, our schools, our churches, and our workplace communities. We define these in very particular ways.

But this way of defining a community is not a new thing that we in contemporary society invented. It has been going on from the time people could group together to share the responsibilities and burdens of survival. Identity in tribal cultures came from community, not from individual accomplishments. One thing that tribes knew is that they were stronger together and that to go off alone, you would eventually lose your mind or die.

In Jesus’ time, people identified themselves with being Jewish or Roman or Samaritan or one of the many other cultures and nations that were intermingling under Roman conquest. Jesus himself was Jewish and worked within the framework of being Jewish to call people back to God.

When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate a very particular definition of what it means to be community: We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer A, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This separates us as a community, just as it separated the community for whom the Gospel of John was written.

Our Gospel of John wasn’t written in one sitting. Instead, it was written over time to address the developing religious and pastoral needs of a particular community. We don’t know exact times, but given the evidence of what was happening in the social and historical context, we can understand this Gospel as originating in an early Christian community struggling to separate itself from first century Judaism—that is, sometime between 75-100 CE. The religious turmoil within emergent Judaism after 70 CE, when the Jewish temple was destroyed, is critical; the Gospel of John’s focused talk about “the Jews” and its prediction of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom for believers readily displays the intra-Jewish conflict of the time. John’s community saw themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Jesus.

Of course, there were other religious beliefs swirling around during that time. The early Christians were also living within a Hellenistic society—meaning that much of the worldview held at that time was that of the Greeks—the principles, ideas, and pursuits associated with the contemporary Greek culture permeated the Mediterranean world. The way the Gospel of John was written is also influenced by this fact. This Gospel was written to a particular community in a particular time and place so that they could define themselves apart from the other religions that were around them. This Gospel helped define them as a community.

Things haven’t changed much since then. We have different religions and philosophies swirling around us in this modern age, too. So how do we define ourselves as Christians now? How do we live as Easter people? Defining ourselves doesn’t mean that we throw stones at others. Defining ourselves means that we live out our lives in a particular way as community so that people can clearly see what being a Christian means. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, this meant that even unto death, Stephen echoed Jesus, asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who were murdering him. Stephen’s faithfulness compelled him to behave differently than someone who did not follow Jesus.

In our American culture, we are not persecuted in the same way that Stephen was or how Christians are treated in other parts of the world. This is nice and comfortable for us, but it often makes it more difficult to show the world how a community that follows Jesus defines itself. The media makes this even more difficult when it highlights Christians that manifest bigotry, hate, and judgment on their neighbors, lumping us all into that category together. How do we continue to define ourselves in the midst of this? How do we show that we are God’s people? What makes us different from Habitat for Humanity or the food bank? They do good works, too, right?

In our Gospel lesson, we have part of the answer. We know the way to the place that Jesus is going because we, by definition, claim to know Jesus as God incarnate—God with us—God’s own son. Jesus was always going to return to God the Father because they were inseparable. Jesus himself was and is simultaneously the access to and the embodiment of life with God. This is our particular belief that helps define us as a Christian community and because of this belief, we are to love Jesus by doing his works and by keeping his commandments: love God and love one another.

How have we defined ourselves in our own community as Episcopalians? What does it mean to be Episcopalian? When we begin to lose our own identity and lose our saltiness, we need to be recalled to the larger community of The Episcopal Church and to the extended Christian community.

As Christians, we are not called to be like everyone else and as Episcopalians, we have our own distinct flavor. Bishop Brian Prior of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota asks this question in his blog from May 2014: “If someone were to stop at a gas station and ask where your church was, how would the gas station attendant answer?” Great question. Would the attendant look at you blankly? Give a vague answer? Or would he or she say, “Oh, that church! That’s the church where this, this, and this happens!” What is our identity in the wider community? What do we want to be known for?

Here are some further questions to ponder this week: What do we value about being Christians in our community? What is God calling us to as the Episcopal presence in our community? How do we define ourselves, as the community for whom the Gospel of John was written defined itself?

May God give us wisdom and courage to live into the answers. Amen.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, a website repository for resources for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have shame around their bodies, sexuality, and faith.Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman. Her favorite past times include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman.

Her favorite pastimes include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Download the sermon for Easter 5(A).

The One I Feed, Easter 4 (A) – May 7, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10; Psalm 23

An Episcopal bishop who served many years ago in the upper Midwest of the United States used to love telling stories he had learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom were Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise man among the Indians – many Native Americans in the Midwest prefer to be called Indians – was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence by the side of the stream. Finally, the boy spoke again, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred, or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.”

Our world today, decades later, is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it online. We do not have to drive very far in our cars to feel it even on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly there on our streets or in our neighborhoods — much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian sage was right. Too many of us still feed the dogs of hatred and rage.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really not much different from our own. Indeed, many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us even today, their unfortunate victims spilling over into refugee camps and resettlement centers across Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the world today still has its share of “thieves and bandits,” as Jesus calls them in our Gospel account today, ready to snatch and scatter the flock.

We in the West like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we just build a wall tall enough to keep them out, and that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be solved. All we need, we are tempted to believe, is a little common sense and some well-honed negotiating skills. After all, that is how deals are done. Yet events of the past few years must make us doubt our most cherished convictions. We actually do not have our act together. And, we remain as vulnerable to our own sinfulness, gullibility, and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians populating this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. Surely, we share precious little DNA with ewes and rams after all. Yet as one animal behaviorist also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together” with our animal cousins. So, like it or not we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit. Despite its thin veneer of order and discipline, humankind remains as messy and chaotic as is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

The shepherds of Jesus’ day endured sun and rain for days or weeks on end and were often as dirty and smelly as the flocks they tended. No smartly-styled business casual attire for them. But unlike their oblivious ovine charges, shepherds then as now were ever vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying the thirst of their flocks. The shepherd knew his sheep as no one else. And the sheep followed him, as Jesus tells us, “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself in this Gospel passage as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening or aperture of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor; his own presence stretched out, as on a cross, bridging the disciples’ –and our own — base insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The hymns sung today at church will likely not include the Whiffenpoof song but the words are nevertheless apt and worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction — to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives. It is all too easy, in other words, to go astray like lost sheep. But it is just then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, our own included.

This is certainly worth bleating about, of course, but it does not make us somehow notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. Still, we are all too familiar with the well-known story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even today there is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war within our hearts, hidden beneath our warm woolens and tasteful tweeds. Which of them shall we feed?

The old bishop often concluded his story of the Indian teacher with a kind of postscript: “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. For the Great Spirit feeds each of us—and it is from the Great Spirit that we first learn to feed others at all.”

We are all fed by the Great Spirit of mercy and forgiveness this Easter season. People everywhere, ourselves included, are starving for the Spirit’s love and compassion. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world around us is still a place of famine and danger. And, the human heart ever yearns to hear the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, so must we now feed others in Christ’s name.

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary, and an area dean in the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Visit our Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com and like us. Isten hozott!

 

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (A).

Seeing through Doubt, Easter 3(A) – April 30, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

The walk to Emmaus is a lovely story, filled with nostalgia and pathos, and graced with details. It has attracted great artists because only art can do it some justice. The evangelist Luke was an artist with words, and the painters who were inspired by him have only added to the beauty of the description. Instead of sermonizing on it, it’s better to relive the story.

It is early morning, on the first day of the week, after the dawn that was to change the world. Startling revelations have been shaking the disciples who are hiding in a certain home in Jerusalem. Women have been coming and going, some exclaiming that they have seen the Lord, others recounting the words of angels. Their eyes are so filled with light that those who see them almost shun them. John and Peter run to the tomb only to find it empty. All this was witnessed by the two people who start out on the walk to Emmaus and home.

It makes sense to think of them as husband and wife. One of them is named as Cleopas. The other is unnamed, but there is a reference to a woman disciple whose name was Maria Klopas, (in the Greek). Easy to miss a vowel in transcription. Several prominent writers/theologians—among them Bishop George Bell and Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in the nineteen-forties—believed that the second person was a woman: Mary Cleopas.

So let’s try to imagine the scene. The disciples, disheartened and depressed, had hidden in a home in Jerusalem, after the arrest and murder of their beloved teacher. Because the Zebedee family (James and John) were of a priestly lineage, it is possible that they had a family house in the city, in addition to their place in Galilee. So, we will assume that the women are looking after the mother of Jesus in that particular Jerusalem house, since Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, had entrusted her to his dear friend John. “This is now your mother,” he had told his friend.

Several younger women have gone in the dark to the tomb, to wash and anoint the body of the Beloved, only to find the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene stays there but the rest run to tell the disciples and his mother. Confusion comes in and out of the house during the morning hours. Is it possible? Can we believe what these emotional women are telling us? If it is not true, can our hearts endure another hammer blow? A perfectly human reaction to extraordinary news from ordinary human folk.

Cleopas must have arrived at the house to escort his wife back home to Emmaus now that her task of mercy is done. Confused and heavy-hearted, they start on the trip downhill. Luke tells us that Emmaus was about sixty stadia (10-12 kilometers) from Jerusalem, and though the exact place has not been determined, we will take the writer at his word. It is a cool spring morning with birds singing and sheep moving nearby, but they are feeling sad with only occasional twinges of hope. Mary is telling her husband about the report of the other women, the wild hope that stirred in them, but also of the confusion that followed. Cleopas had talked to some of the men but they had not seen the Lord, so their depression had fallen upon him also. “None of them has seen him,” he repeats.

The sun is rising and they pause, put their bundles down, to drink a bit of water and rest. Afterward, as they bend down to pick up their belongings to continue the walk, someone else appears next to them, and they wonder why they had not heard or seen him before. He says to them, and there is amusement in his voice, “What have you been discussing? I saw you walking and talking earnestly.”

It’s their turn to be astounded. The greatest and saddest event of their lives had occurred in the last three days. How was it possible that there were people left in their world who didn’t know that they had lost the one they loved, the one who had made life worth living? When a beloved person dies, it is difficult to understand how the earth still spins and the sun still rises and life goes on. Their reaction is perfectly natural after such enormous grief. Cleopas asks the stranger: “Where have you been? Are you the only one who hasn’t heard what happened in the past three days? The best of men, a great prophet, one who did nothing but good, was killed. We had hoped he was our liberator.” The stranger is quiet, listening. The wife jumps in. “But something else happened earlier this morning. Friends of ours went to his tomb and found it empty.” She hesitates, both excited and doubtful. “The women saw a vision of angels. And the angels told them—he’s alive.” Her voice moves from excitement to bewilderment.

The stranger doesn’t pause but keeps walking and they follow, mystified. And then they hear his sigh and his words: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow your hearts are to believe all that the prophets have told you!” Husband and wife look at each other in amazement, but they don’t respond. And now they listen as the stranger tells them stories from their long history and tradition, from the Exodus to the prophets to their own time. They hear the references to God’s anointed and, little by little, they understand that he is talking about their beloved friend and teacher, and now everything falls into place: Jesus’ words about himself as he taught them and as he healed so many illnesses; Jesus’ continued references to his Father; Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. They understand that all this, even Jesus’ death, had been God’s plan from the beginning, and now hope fills them that not all is lost. In fact, everything is gained.

But look, time passes so quickly as they are listening to his words! They are almost at their village. They can see the walls of their home. The stranger offers his farewell and makes as if to continue but panic grips the couple. They don’t want him to go. The wife, practical and hospitable, says, “Look, sir, it will soon be night. Please, come and stay with us.” And the stranger does not refuse. In the manner of Middle Eastern people through the ages, they invite him to eat with them, and he agrees. There is a lamp burning on the table and a loaf of bread next to the water and wine. He reaches for the bread and, confronted by holiness, they watch as he prays, breaks the bread in two pieces and offers it to them. “Ah,” they cry out, “it is the Lord!” Recognition now fills them because of the familiar gesture of the Beloved, but now he is gone from their presence. His work is done but they are bereft. How is it that they had not recognized him all those hours he walked with them? They are ashamed. But that doesn’t last long. They have seen the Lord. They must share it with the others. Despite their tired legs, they return to Jerusalem.

They go to the same house where earlier they had left their fear-filled friends. But now they are all awake, rejoicing and sharing the good news with one another. “We have seen the Lord!” It becomes the most joyful refrain, whispered in amazement and then proclaimed in loud conviction. “We have seen the Lord!” Cleopas and his wife add to the chorus: “Yes, he was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

May he be known to us also in the breaking of the bread.

 

Katerina Whitley, a writer, biblical storyteller and retreat leader lives in Boone, NC. www.katerinawhitley.net

Download the sermon for Easter 3(A).

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Easter A – April 16, 2017

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

We, the faithful in Christ, gather this morning, not just with our friends and families, but also with Christians around the world and across time, joyfully proclaiming what is perhaps the most ancient creed in Christendom: Christ is risen! For the next fifty days, this great and powerful Easter proclamation will mark our liturgy, define our purpose, and affirm our most deeply held belief.

Of course, proclaiming that joyful phrase today amidst the beautiful flowers, the gorgeous music, and in the company of those we love comes easily for most, if not all of us. And yet, for as much as we enjoy the more festive aspects of Easter, the truth is that these things, by themselves, don’t tell the whole story.

Along with praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia,” the whole story of Easter also includes shouts of war and hate; of fear and pain; of confusion and misunderstanding. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, and in the shadow of war and violence that plague our streets and our planet, these emotions are viscerally familiar to all of us. And although we may lose sight of it here this morning, these emotions also filled the hearts of the faithful on that first Easter morning.

The Gospel of John sets the scene: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.” Then, John tells us, she ran to share the news with the others. And while John doesn’t tell us this part himself, when people get news, they don’t typically run unless it’s really good news or really bad news!

Mary, it seems fair to say, is distraught—shocked that the body of her beloved Lord isn’t in the tomb where he had been laid just three days ago. When she reaches the other disciples with the news, they take off running as well, reaching the tomb only to confirm what Mary had told them. They depart, their hopes dashed; their Easter alleluias muted.

This is where Easter ended: The disciples returned home—confused, saddened, and unsure of what would happen next. John tells us that they “as yet…did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

And who could blame them really? They had put so much trust in Jesus, only to have it squashed by powers and principalities. What were they to do now? Where would they go? Who would they believe in next?  These were the questions that raced through the disciples’ minds as they came to grips with their grief and disappointment.

But Mary wasn’t ready to let go just yet.

Mary stays behind, weeping while she examines the emptiness of the tomb, making sure that no detail or clue goes unseen or unexamined—desperately searching for some shred of evidence; grasping for even the faintest possibility.

Just then, she sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They ask her why she is weeping and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

We can hear the weight of grief in her voice. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all had similar moments to the one Mary is experiencing. Moments when we’ve found ourselves desperately searching for God, only to be met with emptiness and sadness. Have you ever come to church, yearning for the peace and comfort of the sacraments, only to find that God doesn’t seem to be there? Has your prayer life ever felt dry and fallow? Have you ever found yourself wondering whether church itself might be futile?

In moments like these, we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual mourning, wondering where Jesus has gone, and why he seems to have been taken away. St. John of the Cross called these moments the “Dark Night of the Soul”—when prayer, sacrament, and community no longer bring comfort, and the transcendence of God’s presence seems to have evaporated.[1]

There is a well-meaning tendency among many Christians—especially those who have never wrestled deeply with their faith—to liken these moments to a kind of spiritual weakness. “If you only prayed a little harder or believed a little deeper or trusted a little more, then everything would be okay,” they tell us. We needn’t look much further than the shelves of our local bookstore for a seemingly endless litany of books offering prescriptions that promise to fix our spiritual life.

But as the Trappist monk and priest Thomas Keating reminds us, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside of us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.”[2]

In other words, we can’t work our way into God’s good graces because God doesn’t deal in performance evaluations and goals and targets. God doesn’t show up on our time or in a manner of our choosing; and our relationship with God cannot be converted into a checklist or a “how to” guidebook.

This is the lesson that Mary learned on that first Easter, and it’s the one that God is still trying to teach us 2,000 years later. In the midst of her desperate search for clues about what might have happened to Jesus’ body, a man walks by and asks Mary why she is so distraught. And desperately hoping that he would know something she didn’t, she says, “If you know where he is—if you’ve taken him somewhere else—just tell me where and I will take him myself.” If you will just tell me what to do or where to go, I’ll do it! It’s as if she’s saying, “Give me a target! Give me a goal! What are the five simple steps that I need to accomplish?”

And that’s when it happens: Jesus calls her by name! “Mary!” And when she hears it, she is overcome! She cries out, “Rabbouni! Teacher!”

With these words, Mary experiences the very first Easter moment! She realizes that Christ’s difficult and at times unbelievable teachings are true—that what he promised at the Last Supper has come to pass!

Mary’s witness to the first Easter is about far more than beautiful worship and festive celebrations. Mary brings us face to face with the depths of our humanity. Her witness is a mosaic of the human experience—grief and joy; uncertainty and affirmation; depression and determination. This is the true witness of Easter!

Even in the depths of our despair and grief, when things just seem to keep piling up with no end in sight, and even when we just don’t know if we believe it anymore, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ has a way of showing up where we least expect him!

But if we’re not careful, we’ll close the book as if the story ends right here. Mary recognizes the Resurrected Lord and everyone lives happily ever after. But this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, if we keep reading, we realize that Easter isn’t a story at all! It’s a commissioning!

Once Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The moment that Mary leaves the garden, the Good News of Easter gets loose and begins to transform the world! Mary bears witness to the fact that, even in the face of death itself, God will have the last word!

Through her first Easter witness, Mary teaches us that grief and joy, uncertainty and affirmation, desperation and determination, are all inescapable parts of our humanity. She teaches us that our lives of faith aren’t about success or opportunities for advancement; rather, they are holy mysteries that will surprise, unsettle, and transform us. But most important of all, she teaches us that in the resurrection of our Lord Christ, we know that love, hope, and peace will ultimately prevail!

And so, in this Eastertide, may we proclaim that Christ is risen, not simply in church, but also in the world around us. May we proclaim it, not simply with our lips, but also with our hands and hearts. And as we live into the joy and promise of Easter, may we go forth into the world, looking for the Resurrected Christ in places we may not expect.

May we search for Christ amidst those who are cast down and rejected; among those who have nobody to care for them; and in the company of those who have never known the loving embrace of friendship. The world needs this now, perhaps more than ever before. But most of all, may we not simply proclaim the Good News, may we also believe it so that the whole world may see Christ in their midst and proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

Alleluia!

Written by the Rev. Marshall A. Jolly, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published works include essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] See TJ Tetzlaff’s essay for Easter Day (Year C), entitled, “The Unlikely Evangelist” in Modern Metanoia 14 March 2016, http://modernmetanoia.org/2016/03/14/easter-day-c-the-unlikely-evangelist/

[2] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 38.

Download the sermon for Easter.

Doubt Strengthens Faith, Easter 2(A) – April 23, 2017

RCL] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

One of the greatest blessings we encounter as Christians is the freedom to admit when we have doubts.  As faithful Christians, we should have the audacity to ask tough questions concerning our faith and traditions.

For some, doubt is synonymous with having a lack of faith, but doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. They are the Ying and Yang, if you would, of the Christian life.

According to Paul Tillich, doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Rather than suppress our doubts, we should explore them and allow them to set us on a journey of discovery and a deepening of our beliefs and convictions. In our Gospel reading today, Thomas asked for proof, and we also want proof as well that our faith is not in vain.

Thomas often gets a bad rap for doubting the resurrection of Jesus; however, he was no more doubtful than the other disciples and apostles.

The other disciples didn’t believe that Jesus had risen until he appeared to them, so why should we expect Thomas to be any different?

In fact, we applaud Thomas for his insistence on wanting tangible proof. After all, Thomas was well aware that Jesus wasn’t the first messianic figure on the scene to be crucified by the Roman occupiers. Thomas showed great religious restraint and demonstrated the proper amount of rational doubt.  But when Jesus appeared to him, Thomas proclaimed without reservation, “My Lord, and my God.”

Doubt can be a wonderful tool that propels us into deeper learning, earnest soul searching, and spiritual revelation. Faith based on absolute certainty leads to fanaticism, but faith tempered with doubt is mature and stable.

Many believers struggle with their own doubts brought about by life’s unpredictability and tempestuous nature. We have very real struggles in our lives that generate an uncertainty about where God is to be found in all the turmoil.

Sometimes we look to spiritual giants, the superstars of Christianity, and feel inferior in our own personal walk in comparison. However, the greatest in the Kingdom sometimes deal with the greatest doubt.

Mother Teresa’s diary reveals a saintly person who struggled with a type of doubt that would crush the faint of heart. She wrote to her spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, in 1979, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

For the last nearly half-century of her life Mother Teresa felt no presence of God whatsoever — neither in her heart or in the Eucharist. That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta and— except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated.

Although perpetually cheery in public, Mother Teresa lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. She bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she was undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.  Nevertheless, she continued to love the least in God’s creation and dedicate her life to Christ to the very end.

Mother Teresa isn’t alone in her struggle with doubt. The Polish-born Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer states that doubt is part of all religion, that all the religious thinkers were doubters. The art critic Robert Hughes said, “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “So I am praying while not knowing how to pray. I am resting while feeling restless, at peace while tempted, safe while still anxious, surrounded by a cloud of light while still in darkness, in love while still doubting.”

Despite Fr. Nouwen’s own struggle with doubt, he was able to mentor and encourage countless thousands through his writings, lectures, and sermons. One particular quote from a book of his has been a lifeboat for many who find themselves overcome with the waves of life’s stormy doubts: “Have the courage to trust that you will not fall into an abyss of nothingness, but into the embrace of a God whose love can heal all your wounds.”

Faith is a daily, ongoing exercise. It is a risk. Doubts arise. We struggle with God. And hopefully, faith grounded in the goodness of God triumphs — even when we do not have all the answers and life doesn’t make sense.

Will we believe in a God of love who wants to be near us and has our best interest at heart? Or will we believe in a God who plays games with us, and is ultimately cruel and uncaring? Will we believe in a God who stands beside us in our troubles, or one who is distant and difficult?

The author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is not void of doubt, but requires a daily commitment to developing our spiritual walk despite life’s uncertainties and sometimes cruelties.

Faith doesn’t take away our doubts, but is strengthened by them.  And faith doesn’t deliver us from our problems and heartaches, but gives us the strength to persevere through them and lead others as well as they navigate around the abyss of nothingness.

May his resurrection power be at work in our lives as we learn to allow our doubts to strengthen our faith.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Timothy G. Warren,  a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Fr. Warren is pastor of St. Francis (Independent Old Catholic Church), an emergent outreach ministry that serves at-risk teens and young adults in the High Desert Region of Southern California, and President/Executive Director LifeSkills Development, a nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults. Fr. Warren is also a member of the High Desert Interfaith Council.

Download the sermon for Easter 2(A).

Moving toward Christian unity, Ascension Day (A,B,C) – 2015

May 14, 2015

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“Lord, is it time?” How many questions like that do we ask on our journey in faith?

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, while the apostles were still looking for deliverance from political domination and oppression, they asked, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It is a question many believers ask today.

Jesus’ answer is simply to say we are asking the wrong question. It is not for us to know the time, nor whether God favors Israel and will restore it to its former glory. Rather, we are to be witnesses to all that Jesus has done, including fulfilling the Law and the prophets by his suffering and death.

The Ascension makes Jesus a universal figure, drawing us all to him, and sending us to be witnesses of the Good News. There is no time to ponder; now is the time to act – together.

Recently, a small town found itself in the midst of a struggle over religion – not unusual for small towns. The struggle had to do with who were the real Christians. One group organized a Jesus parade for the day before Easter. The organizers were mostly made up of folks from the more conservative and evangelical churches. When the mainline church groups went to register, they were told they couldn’t participate because their sign that proclaimed diversity and inclusiveness in Jesus was “too controversial.” So the mainline churches stayed away.

While nobody wanted a religious war, there did seem to be a line drawn between those who interpret scripture with proof text methods and those who interpret it in context. Those on the sidelines took some pleasure in the divide.

The universal ascended Lord confronts both of these groups of Christians to come together, challenging us to move away from the things that separate us and move toward the things that unite us.

Throughout the Book of Acts the apostles face difficulties, including their own divisions over how to interpret and share the Good News. The author of Acts doesn’t gloss over these sharp differences, but in the end shows how the unity of the gospel can be found when we allow ourselves to be drawn to the ascended Jesus rather than claiming the way we know him is the only way. As Peter learns after the Resurrection, God shows no partiality.

In today’s reading from Ephesians, the Apostle Paul prays that “the Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him.” In a time when our loyalties are challenged and divided by legislation, politics and religion, it is good to remember that the ascended Jesus prays for us and offers us wisdom and revelation, free from our own prejudices and fears, unbound so we can witness freely to all about the Good News of the gospel.

During these great 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, there is time to reflect on the universal ascended Lord and the gospel message. It will not be the same message in every place or every context, but it will be the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

As we prepare for the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, keep in mind that we all share the Good News. How we express it depends on the time and the place.

Regard the ascended Lord as empowering. Our divisions in the Christian community disempower us. Jesus’ work is to redeem messes, personal and public. While we have a large responsibility in that work, we are never alone. The ascended Jesus prays for us, sends us the power of the Spirit, and guides us to do that work.

So ask Jesus to guide your thinking and actions in ways that bring about unity and overcome division. Ask Jesus to unburden your heart and mind of prejudice and hurtful thoughts that encourage separation among believers. Ask the ascended Lord to empower you to be a disciple, a candle of light in the darkness of division. Then wait for your orders.

The apostles depended on the risen and ascended Jesus to sustain them in very difficult circumstances. He promised them he would be with them, always. We inherit their difficulties and their promise. Most of all, we live in the light of the ascended Lord who sends us the Holy Spirit and will one day make us one.

 

— Ben Helmer is a retired priest living in Holiday Island, Ark. He has been affiliated with diverse small congregations for over 40 years.

Jesus didn’t say, ‘Beam me up’, 7 Easter (A) – 2014

June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

We are all familiar with depictions of people coming and going. Many will recall in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” how Glinda, the good witch, descends upon Dorothy and the Munchkins in a bubble, and after delivering a message and explaining the mystery of the ruby slippers, departs in the same way. And no one who has watched even one “Star Trek” episode can have missed Captain Kirk or his crew being beamed up by a transporter beam.

So, that is just like the Ascension, right?

Wrong. The Ascension of Jesus is not a device to get him back into heaven from whence he came. The Ascension is an account of how Jesus, having finished his work on earth, blazes a trail over which we one day shall travel, a trail to eternal life that continues our relationship with the risen Jesus and God, our creator and redeemer.

While other religions have their divine ascension narratives, with other worthy ones ascending with them, Jesus departs alone, leaving his disciples behind, staring into empty space, as a cloud takes him out of their sight.

And why does that matter?

Because our work is not done on earth. We learn more about that work from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – and us – in the gospel reading for today: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”

This farewell prayer is said, not just for the small band of family and followers, but also for each of us. The good news here is that Jesus prays openly for us, for our protection and our unity so that we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

Jesus also tells us, shortly before his Ascension, what eternal life means for us: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Ascension makes Jesus accessible to all people, not just his disciples in a particular historic moment. He prays for all people, and all may call upon him. There is no limit to accessing him, no request too small.

Recently a woman called her church office in distress because her husband had just received a bad diagnosis. She did not know what to do. As she talked with her pastor, her voice became calmer and she began to voice her fear about what might happen. Then she said, “Will the church pray for us?”

“Of course,” her pastor replied, “and I am praying for you both right now.”

“I know,” she said. “I can feel it.”

The risen and ascended Lord entered into her time of need with a calming presence through her plea for help and her pastor’s prayer. That is how a relationship with Jesus is supposed to work: immediately accessible, even when we cannot say the words because of our grief or distress.

People are constantly learning how the living Lord works on their behalf. Jesus’ Ascension paves the way for this work, and we are the beneficiaries of it.

In the Easter season, we are continually drawn to stories about Jesus’ pastoral care for us. He walks to Emmaus with the troubled disciples who had hoped he would redeem Israel, and then helps them see his risen life and the power it holds for them as they begin to share the Good News with others. He cooks breakfast for his friends on the shore of the lake, and they know through this simple act of hospitality how deeply he cares for them, and we know how deeply he cares for all of us.

When was the last time you asked God for something? When was the last time you knelt in a church or in your living room and asked Jesus for a specific need? When was the last time you prayed for yourself or a friend to be healed?

For whom will you pray today? For whom will you offer prayer this week? These prayers are dialogues with Jesus, and he wants us to speak to him. He wants to give us good things, the things we deeply desire and need to lead lives of hope. That is what he does for the disciples in today’s gospel reading, and that is what he will do for you.

Conversion and transformation are the steps the risen one takes with us. Few people have the dramatic experience recorded by the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, but many have moments when life and their place in it begin to come together. That is the conversion experience, when the pieces of the puzzle of life begin to fit together. The conversion leads to transformation, a new life centered in the risen, ascended Lord. It is no longer all about you or me.

Many of us have a favorite person whom we admire for their ability to go through a crisis or meet difficult challenges head on. One young man works for the Veteran’s Administration and sees vets from many different wars. He says the ones who teach him the most are the ones who can articulate their faith, the conviction that God loves them and cares for them, even with lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses. “They are,” he says, “the people who have found peace in the midst of strife. They know Jesus and see him as their friend.”

Jesus does not come and go on a transporter beam. His presence abides in the church and in a personal and unique relationship with each of us. That is what we celebrate in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Today, whether you are joyful about something or sad and grieving over what might have been, remember you are connected to the risen Christ, through the community of faith and directly with him. Pray for specific things you need. Ask for the things he wants to give you, and always remember it is his risen and ascended life that makes him accessible. He wants to walk with you. Will you take his hand?

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He resides in nearby Holiday Island.