Betwixt and Between

A sermon for Easter 7; Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

Today is a bit of a betwixt and between day. Thursday is the prescribed day to celebrate the Ascension, the story we read in Acts this morning when Jesus ascends into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father. It is one High Holy Day that many congregations do not celebrate because it is in the middle of the week; moreover; it floats around from one day to the next because it is 40 days after Easter Sunday and no matter how hard anyone tries when you divide 40 by 7 (the days in a week) you get a remainder, so Ascension Day moves around. The other end of betwixt and between is Pentecost which is next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit arrives (at least for Luke); a celebration many mark by wearing all manner of red clothing and others by commemorating the birthday of thre church. But today we are betwixt and between. But, there are at least three excellent phrases in the reading from Acts we should at least take a closer look at.

The first is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?

One commentary notes:

They have had three years hearing Jesus teach and witnessing his deeds of power. They witnessed the crucifixion. They saw or were told about the empty tomb. And lastly, they have had 40 days of specific prayer and instruction with Jesus preparing them for their work to come. And still, they have one more religious-political who’s going to be in charge question (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Harrelson).

To which Jesus says It is not for you to know; ~ its none of your business. His answer and the unexpected time since then ought to make it very clear, that God’s plan for restoring Israel is not what anyone expects, that it will not “erupt from the heavens in the twinkling of an eye” nor is it not for a select few to know (Wall). God knows what God is doing, that’s enough for us to know. Jesus goes on to say

 You have work to do here and now, go be my witness to the end of the earth, and I will send the Holy Spirit to help. (My paraphrase.)

To borrow a phrase from John’s Gospel story now is the time to work the works God has given us to work (Osvaldo).

After this the disciples witness Jesus ascend into the heavens. Now comes one of my favorite bibles verses: They stood there, staring into the empty sky. (Acts 1:10, The Message). How many times do we get caught up in some sort of speculation about what’s going on in the life of the church or about what God/Jesus/ Spirit is up to and just stare into empty space rather than get about working the work (Bratt)? There are good reasons, well at least there are good excuses. We might not have a clue what to do. We might be overwhelmed by the size of the task, after all the ends of the earth is a long way away no matter where you start. And there is plenty to be afraid of, threats abound; then and now. In places, Christians are physically threatened and or face death. In the United States, there is enough political instability to make us uneasy. In many places, including the Arkansas Delta, there is enough economic uncertainty, to distract us. And we should face the truth that we may be facing our personal fears. Staring into empty space may be just that, or it may be what pondering how to undertake what the unknowable is. Either way, we are not alone.

We are not alone because Jesus does not send disciples or us as individuals out to be witnesses. The ministry of continuing Jesus’ ministry is a task of the community of disciples that share a unity that mirrors the image of the unity between Jesus and the Father that John captures in Jesus’ prayer so that they may be one as we are one (John 17:11). The fact that there has always been intuitional factions does not mean there is not Christian unity. In Acts 1:7 Jesus lets us know that God’s plan is not about political or earthly structures. In John 17:11 Jesus lets us know that unity is relational. And if you go all the way back to the beginning, Genesis teaches us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Remember we are Christians, and as Christians, we understand stand God as Trinity ~ 1 in 3 and 3 in 1, a divine model of community; therefore, we are made to be a community that reflects the divine community.

The final, and by chance 3rd, phrase to pay attention to today is in the final verse they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. If you ever been stumped, and if you ever wonder what Jesus would do ~ the answer is pray (Logue). It is a lesson the disciples learned because prayer, constant prayer, is a foundational piece of their community life. As Episcopalians, we have an abundance of prayer resources. The oldest is in The Book of Common Prayer. If you look in the table of contents, on page 5, you will see 5 forms of daily prayer, 2 of which have 2 forms and also Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families which offers short forms of prayer for morning, midday, early evening, and at the close of day. Beginning on Page 809 you will find 70 prayers for all manner and occasions. If you ever need to pray for something go there, there is something you can use to help get you started; it is a wonderful powerful resource (The Episcopal Church). There is Forward Day by Day that offers a scripture verse and short reflection for every day (Forward Movement). There is The Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Brother give us a word that offers a daily email with a short reflection, and the occasional seasonal online reflections and forms of prayer (SSJE). From now till Pentecost they are offering Thy Kingdom Come in response to and in collaboration with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call to prayer (COE). We are often dismissively referred to as those people with the book. We are ~ those people with the book; a book of prayer, that is one of many ways we as a community can constantly devote ourselves to prayer where ever we are. Our prayer life is important, not because it lets God know what in our hearts, God already knows that. Our prayer life is important because it is how as individuals and as a community we do not let the current concerns of the world, or our passionate commitment to mission, replace our abiding relationship with Jesus. The oneness of the Father and Jesus is their abiding relationship. Our oneness with Jesus and the Father is our abiding relationship with them and each other (Wall). It only makes sense that the abiding place (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) the Father has prepared for us is the same place the work God has given us to work is ~ right here, right now.

Jesus has ascended. The work we are to work is right here. And the promise of the Spirit is right around the corner.

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Easter 7 A: Acts 1:6-14. 28 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 28 5 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Forward Movement. “prayer.” n.d. forwardmovement.org. <http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/forward_day_by_day.php?d=26&m=5&y=2017&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 28 5 2017.

Logue, Frank. “Learning from Proverbs – Proper 18(B).” 28 5 2015. Sermons that Work.

Osvaldo, Vena. “Commentary on John 91:-41.” 20 3 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

SSJE. Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 10 2015. <http://ssje.org/word/&gt;.

The Church of England. n.d. http://www.thykingdomcome.global. <https://www.thykingdomcome.global/&gt;.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

 

 

 

Our Prodigal Selves

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, Psalm 32

 

He was simply known as Bill. The Air Force Academy Cadets did not notice him much; there was only an occasional nod of the head or “good morning.” as they rushed off to whatever. Bill was the janitor, the housekeeper, who picked up behind them, kept their squad room spotless, from floors to showers. Bill was just another fixture, all but invisible, blending into squad’s dorm.

One afternoon James Moschgat was reading about the US Army battle for Italy when the story of Altavilla caught his attention.

On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford of the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire… with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …

James couldn’t believe it; his squad’s janitor held the Medal of Honor. He asked Bill about it the next day. “Yep – that is me,” he said. When asked why he didn’t say anything he answered: “That was one day in my life, and it happened a long time ago.”

Things changed. The cadets greeted Bill with respect. They began to pick up after themselves. Bill was invited to some formal squad affairs. Bill also changed. He moved with more ease, wasn’t quite so stooped. He answered the cadet’s greetings eye to eye and a hearty “good morning.” He learned many of the cadets’ first names. As James left the dorm for the last time, Bill shook his hand and wished him “Good luck young man.” (Moschgat).

You know the story of the Prodigal Son or Sons¸ or whatever title you apply to Luke 5:11. You know the brash young son asks for his inheritance, essentially telling his father to “drop dead” (Hoezee, Luke). After squandering it all, he returned home intending to ask his father for a job as a hired hand. But he never got the chance, as his father lovingly welcomes him home, throws a lavish party for him, and gives him luxurious gifts. You know the parable is about God’s boundless grace, given to all without merit. You might even have thought about the older brother. He bears the burden of goodness, always doing what he should, as he should when he should (Epperly). He gets angry at his younger brother and his father, complaining that his father has never given him anything. The father replies “All this will be yours.” But we never hear if older brother eventually understands his father’s grace, or is as lost as his younger brother was (Ringe). You might understand how indignant he feels if you’ve ever worked hard all day, given it your best, only to have all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps considered worthless (Lose). Have you ever noticed that the older brother never got any joy or fulfillment from his work; that, for all intended purposes, he thought of himself as a hired hand, exactly what his younger brother, in shame, sought to be (Hoezee, Luke).

Yes, we know this parable is about grace. However, when we remember that this morning’s Gospel reading begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus fellowshipping and eating with tax collectors and sinners, the undesirables of the undesirables, we begin to understand how it is also about relationships. Not just our relationship with God, but also with each other, as Paul is defining it to the Corinthians. Jesus, reconciling everything to God, through himself, changes all relationships. Paul says we must see everything and everyone as reconciled with God. Not only are we bearers of God’s image; we also are bearers of God’s saving grace (Hoezee, 2 Corin.). The parable reveals that grace, righteousness, and justice are not about balancing the books. Grace, righteousness and justice are about restored relationships (Ellingsen). It is about seeing God / Jesus in everything and every person (Epperly). Perhaps most difficult for us to glean is that it is about our internal transformation (Sakenfeld). We get that in our relationship with God; we struggle with it in our relationships with others.

There is a Bible study method that invites you to see which character, in, or implicit, or imagined you are in a parable. You are asked to reflect on how you are that character; not as the typical allegory, but as you. You know the father is the allegorical figure of God. This study method asks you to imagine yourself as the father, as you are. We might ask ourselves, “How did we contribute to our older son’s feeling?” We might review our behavior to see if we ever expressed the feelings we have for our dutiful older son. We might wonder how we can express the same joy we have for his diligence that we expressed for our younger son’s return from his indiscretions. Moschgat’s story of his cadet squadron’s changed relationship with Bill is edifying.

At the end of the article, he lists several learnings; two apply this morning. He writes

Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he was received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.

He continues – courtesy makes a difference, daily words moving from a perfunctory ‘hello’ to heartfelt greetings matter (Moschgat). I once heard a priest say “How are you?” is the most dangerous question you can ask because you must be prepared for the truthful answer; ready to listen to all of it. It is important to notice that the cadets did not directly change Bill’s behavior. They changed their behavior, and the impact of the change in themselves evoked the change in Bill.

The Book of Common Prayer teaches us that “the ministry of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP). Our mission is to reconcile all relationships. Clearly I cannot reconcile all your relationships, nor can any of you reconcile all of anyone else’s relationships, and none of us can reconcile relationships of those we don’t know. What we can be, is responsible for is our own relationships. We can trust that through Jesus our relationship with God is reconciled. We can understand that it is our behavior towards others, not just what we say; that is the true measure of our Christian relationships, especially involving those we don’t like and/or don’t believe are worthy. And, finally, we can trust that by working on our behavior, by working on changing ourselves, we will, as the cadets demonstrated, evoke changes in the other.

It is my prayer for each of us that some portion of our remaining Lenten discipline, and our daily discipline thereafter, will be to tend to our prodigal selves, known and unknown, joyfully welcoming our repentant self, and likewise jubilantly celebrating our diligent self.

 

References

Ellingsen, Mark. 6 3 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 3 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fredrickson, David E. Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:1621. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016.” 6 3 2016. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 4 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. 6 3 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

—. Lent 4 Luke. 6 3 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Perspective Matters. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God. 6 3 2016.

Moschgat, James. Leadership and the Janitor. Fall 2010. <http://usoonpatrol.org/archives/2010/09/07/leadership-and-the-janitor&gt;.

Ringe, Sharon H. Commentary on Luke 15:13, 6 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. 1979.

A sermon for Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

The stump, the brood of vipers, unity, and repentance.

Isaiah opens with the image of a stump. Until today I’ve always seen the stump from the illustration in The Giving Tree, cleanly cut. No longer, the stump is what’s left after the tree has fallen because it rotted from the inside out, and could no longer stand. It’s fallen so long ago, the stump is all that’s left. It’s desolate. It’s an image of death. And yet, for Isaiah, for Judah there is more, there is hope, there is a shoot, tiny, fragile, but green, full of new life, full of hope [i] for a future as grand as a perfect image of its predecessor.

For John the Baptist, it’s a brood of vipers. Until today, it’s been a like the scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusades with all the snakes slithering around all over the floor of the hidden chamber. Now it’s a vision of the common room of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, whose members put all their trust in “pure blood heritage.” [ii] It’s ego centric, exclusive, it could not see what may be for its focus on what was.

For Paul it’s unity. Until today it has been a utopian image, of all kinds of folks, who all agree on everything, who walk in perfect harmony, enjoying a magnificent banquet, where one eats all the fatty salty food imaginable, with no health consequences. Now, it’s a group of very different people, where no one is quite comfortable, where everyone is at risk, while everyone shares a diverse but common faith in Jesus’ promise of life in the glory, the presence of God. [iii] 

For the Psalmist, well it’s a psalm, perhaps a poem, perhaps a song, perhaps a liturgical setting. Until today it’s been a crucible expressing the values of days past. Psalm 72 enthrones a king; not very relevant to democracy, we elect leaders; not very relevant to Christians, Christ is King. Now it’s repentance, it’s a change in how we envision political, elected leadership, and what we expect of them. Now we ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through our secular elected representative leaders. [iv] 

What might all this look like? Think back to the early 1990’s, recall South Africa, ruled by an oppressive minority by the principles of apartheid. Apartheid is Afrikaans meaning being apart. It is a corrupt racist political philosophy. It was a stump, morally deficient, it was dead. It had its supporters, a brood of vipers, pure bread of Slytherin house, in South Africa, and in the United States. But from that rotted stump there was a shoot, actually many, one we remember today is Nelson Mandela. Born in 1918 to a royal tribal family, he actively fought Apartheid, until his arrest, conviction and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He was granted release in 1990, elected President of South Africa in 1994, and unlike other  African revolutionary leaders served only one term. [v] Think back to the 1990’s to the brood of vipers, dedicated to true blood heritage. There were voices from around the world crying in the wilderness for repentance, for a change of behavior; naming South Africa’s leaders for what they were, ego centric, exclusive, oppressive leaders of a stump. All heard, some listened, at least one caught a vision of what can be nothing less than Christ centered unity, at least one repented, truly repented, changed his ways, and lead his people to justice and righteousness in rejecting apartheid and accepting a more democratic system of governance. F.W. de Klerk was president of South Africa when Mandela was released. He engaged with Mandela in negotiations for peaceful transition to freely democratic elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. [vi] 

A stump, a brood of vipers, a vision of unity, true repentance.

We live in a world of stumps; in a world full of institutions that because of their own actions, or inaction, that because of rapidly changing context are rotting away, are failing are dead. It’s easy to be depressed. Today’s scripture readings call us, to see and name the stump, and then, to see and nurture the shoot, the possibility for new life.

 

We are surrounded by broods of vipers, with Slytherin House commitment to pure blood, to true ideology, of all stripes. They are cleaver, speaking in language of security, and prosperity; in truth, they are egotistic, self-centered oppressive thinkers. And we to one degree or another are in their midst. We hear the prophetic voice, and we cringe at its biting truth. Today’s scripture readings offer us the hope they offer the invitation to repent, to change; and we know, the one who calls us, will walk with us through all the challenges that journey will bring.

 

We are surrounded by clusters of common identity, racial, political, economic philosophy, religious, you name it there’s a group claiming to be the [quote] true believers. They all promise acceptance, security, and a whole host of worldly values, if we look like, think like, worship like, act like, the group’s definitions. Today’s scripture calls us to unity in Christ, while feely acknowledging that to truly invite others in, or to accept another’s invitation into requires us to risk, because we will be changed. That is the truth with our now very different neighbor; it’s the truth with Jesus.

It is Advent; we are surrounded with the language of repentance. We’d shake our heads in agreement, and leave church headed to the nearest special sale, so we can check off one more box on our pre-Christmas to do list. It is Advent, we are surrounded with the invitation to change, how we see the world, shoots not stumps, neighbors not others hope not despair, a divine presence here and now not out there some day. It’s a vision that can change the world, that begins with one new shoot that begins with one transformed person, that begins in our common bond in the incarnate God, whose dynamic presence is continually emerging.

 


[vi] ibid

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Center for Excellence in Preaching cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php
New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010
Walter Harrison, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003