A New Place

 A Sermon for the 6th Sunday in Easter: Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5:1-9

Preface, this is my last Sunday as a retired supply priest for St. Stephen’s.

Well, today is an interesting day. I could preach about Acts, and how Lydia is not only a leader in the early Christian Church, she is also a wealthy independent woman who is a leader in her community (Acts 16:9-15). And there is plenty of thoughts here when under the guise of standing for a fetus’ right to life, several states, under the leadership of mostly older white men, have passed draconian laws that seek to deny women their biblical place as their equals and images of God. I could preach about Revelation and the New Jerusalem, which is already here, that has no Temple, because the Temple, which is the reminder of God, is no longer needed because God is here all the time (Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5). Or I could preach on John 5 and people ignoring the cripple, by the pool of Bethzatha, for 13,870 days (John 5:1-9). We tend to focus on the miraculous healing when Jesus tells him to get up and walk, and he does. We don’t talk about the man’s total lack of appreciation; he just walks away. We also ignore how many excuses people made, and make, excuses to walk on by those in need. This story is an example when righteousness, which this man has little of, has nothing to do with healing and salvation (Pankey). However, the divine muse kept pushing me elsewhere.

Today you and I are in a new place. For the first time in 25 years, I no longer have a pulpit. I know I am still a priest I know I am called. To exactly what? I am not sure; I have some ideas, even some thoughts, some hopes, but nothing definite.

For the first time St. Stephen’s no longer has an idea of your priestly leadership. You have been through several transitions of Rectors and Vicars. You have even been through the mission-parish-back to mission status more than once. You know you are a Faith Community, a faithful community. You know you are called to be a welcoming, caring home for anyone seeking a place to nurture their relationship with God. What that is going to look like, and how it is going to be, is a work in process. Your vestry and Bishop Benfield and Cannon Alexander will lead this discernment.

You and I are separately in the same place, a new place, an unknown place. To be honest it is a little scary ~ because it is unknown. Friday, I read the Noon Day Prayer Office in which Psalm 121 is one of the appointed options.

It may be familiar:

 1 I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?

2 My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

4 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;

5 The Lord himself watches over you; *
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,

6 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.

8 The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore (BCP 779).

In ancient days gods lived on the hilltops. The psalmist implies there is no help to be found there. Why? Because his help comes from God, who created the heavens and the earth, and who watches over him and you always. God is the psalmist’s help. God is my help. God is your help. God is eternally reliable help, wherever you, ~ we, maybe, whatever we may be up to. Psalm 121 is one of my favorites, it hangs on my study wall, or it will again when I am settled in my new study.

Psalm 131 is another favorite, adopted by my informal study group in seminary:

1 O Lord, I am not proud; *
I have no haughty looks.

2 I do not occupy myself with great matters, *
or with things that are too hard for me.

3 But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast; *
my soul is quieted within me.

4 O Israel, wait upon the Lord, *
from this time forth for evermore (BCP 785).

We laughed about great matters or things that were too hard, and there were plenty. We took comfort in stilling our souls in stopping and waiting for the Lord.

While I am on favorite Bible verses, here is one from the creation story

So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

This is the foundation of our relationship with God. All of us, every human being who ever was, who is, and who will be is created, ~ made ~ in God’s image and therefore made to be in relationship with God. From the second creation story

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help-mate.” (Genesis 2:18).

This is the foundation of our relationship with each other. We are made to be in relationships, we are created to be help-mates to each other, specifically, male-female, and by extension, everyone is created to be everyone else’s helper -mate (Young Gen. 2:18). How these come together is seen in John 9. There the disciples ask Jesus

Who sinned the man or his parents that he was born blind?

And yes, according to Jewish theology, there was apparently a way a fetus can sin. That now aside, we can focus on Jesus’s answer.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me (John 9:3-4).

Or

No one sinned. Life happens. This man was born blind. Now is the time to work the works God has given us to work (Trotter).

Which brings us to where we are.

For the first time in a quarter century, I do not have a pulpit. For the first time in memory St. Stephen’s does not know the nature of your future. No one sinned, no one did anything wrong, life just happens. God has given us work to do, even if it is yet somewhat undefined, so you are not alone, you have helpmates, you are made to be with God, so you can still your souls and not worry about the little stuff, or the big stuff either, because, God is eternally and reliably here to help, wherever you, wherever we, maybe, and whatever we may be up to.

We can be at peace.
We need not fear the changes of life,
but can look to them, with full hope as they arise
God, whose very own we are,
will deliver us from them.
God has kept us so far,
and will lead us safely through all things; …
We need not be afraid
of what may happen tomorrow;
the same eternal Father
who cares for us today, will take care of us every day.
Let us put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations
and in peace, work the works God has given us to work
(adapted, St. Francis DeSalles).


References

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 5 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Helmer, Ben E. “Such Good Things, Easter 6.” 26 5 2019. Sermons that Work.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 5:1-9. 26 5 2019.

Pankey, Steve. Pick up your excuses. 26 5 2019. <wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491/posts/1312346053>.

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

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

Trotter, John Scott. “Healthy Access.” A Proposal for Doctor of Ministry Memphis Theological Seminary. April 2016. TS.

Young, Robert. Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible. 1892: Public Domain, n.d.

 

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.