Monday, June 19, 2017

What is your answer . . . What is our answer?

     Happy Father’s Day.  Those looking at the readings probably thought I would preach on the Old Testament today.  After all, it has been almost three months since I was able to give an Old Testament sermon and Genesis 18 is the only reading about fatherhood today, right?
     As background to our passage, let me remind you of some of the setting and some of the significant details.  Those who suffered through the Genesis Bible study can read the catechesis in the back of the BCP.  What?  You don’t think I have not done that during boring or repeated sermons myself?
     The first thing we need to remember is that this story takes place in about the 24th year of a 25 year unveiling of the covenant.  24 years prior to this reading, Sarah and Abraham responded to God’s call on their lives by leaving Ur and heading southwest some 500 miles—on foot.  In that time, God has continued to unfold His covenant plans for them.  First, there was the promise of an heir.  Then it was the promise of an heir that was of Abraham’s issue.  Now they both learn, in their late 90’s, that the heir will be a child who belongs to both of them.  Spread amongst that unveiling are lots of little stories.  Despite her age, Sarah seems to be a hottie.  Kings want her for their harems.  There is a risk about the land with Lot, and then further risk when Abraham leads his men into battle against five kings in order to free Lot.  Sometimes, because Sarah and Abraham do not have all the information, they make decisions which seem reasonable but actually prove to be an obstacle to God’s planned covenant.  They adopt a son, as was the cultural practice.  Sarah gives her handmaid to her husband to have a child.  In short, there are lots and lots of obstacles to God’s plan for this couple and their family, some of which are self-inflicted.  And we get only the highlights and lowlights.
     Imagine if I asked you to write a narrative about your life the last couple decades and confine it to only 6-8 chapters.  What would you include?  What would you exclude?  Now pretend that I wanted you only writing about your faith walk with the Lord.  How would that change what you shared?  Would you focus only on the blessings?  Would you maybe share how you believed and acted in one way only to learn that God had a better plan for you?  How would you choose what to share?  And what of your day to day “ordinary” life?  Would you expect us to think you had no ordinary days over a 24 year period?  Of course not!  That’s what we have from the life of Sarah and Abraham.  Of course, they had help.  God caused the important parts of their walk with Him to be recorded and preserved for our benefit.
     Because last week was Trinity Sunday, we did not get to read what happened right before our story today.  The prior section was all about circumcision.  I’m sorry, gentlemen.  I know it’s Father’s Day.  I know the last thing you wanted to think about today was adult circumcision.  But that lets us understand why Abraham and his retinue are reclining under the tree.  God has used circumcision as an outward sign of the inward and invisible grace present in Abraham and his family.  The outward mark is the circumcision.  The inward grace is that this family has been chosen by God to be a blessing to the world!  One insignificant family will be the means by which God’s redeeming love will be made known to all.  The seed of that covenant will be our Lord Christ, but there will be lots to do in the interim.  Abraham and the fellas do not really want to be working.  Things hurt.  And in that warm climate in the sun, sweat is a bit too common.  How many of us like getting salt in our paper cuts or hangnails?  Just think of sweating after circumcision!
     Look at the location.  It is a place called Mamre.  You probably know nothing about Mamre.  Mamre was important for at least three reasons.  Josephus, the famous Jewish-Roman historian, records that some thought the tree at Mamre was as old as the world.  The tree was really a terebinth—more of a big branchy shrub than what you and I consider a tree in Middle Tennessee.  This was the biggest anyone had ever seen, so they assumed it was the oldest.  That caused some sacred value to be assigned to the place.  Mamre is also the place where Abraham built the altar to the Lord after the renewal of the covenant.  Not only was Abraham given a renewed and further revealed covenant in this place; he built an altar of thanksgiving for that renewal and the outward mark of that inner grace that cause us men to squirm!  It is that history that caused some Jews to want the Temple of the Lord to be built in Mamre rather than Jerusalem.  Obviously, Jerusalem won.  David and Solomon, however, had to contend with this “secular” and historical significance when building the Temple in Jerusalem rather than this location.  We don’t hear lots about those fights, but you can imagine them in your minds.  And Mamre will become the burial location for Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.  Imagine the cultural draw to build the Temple in this place!  I share all this with you this morning to give you some sense of the background the Jews would have known when they encountered this story.  In some ways, the terebinth of Mamre was a precursor to the burning bush!
     Now to our story.  In the middle of the heat of the day, we are told, three strangers appear travelling.  Those of us who have travelled understand that cultures in warm environments often task a break during the noonday sun.  Going back three thousand years or so, we can easily understand why some people would not risk the heat of the day to travel.  It was simply too dangerous, especially when one lacked the caravan goods like water!  Yet three men come strolling by Abraham in the heat of the day.  Abraham, still recovering from his circumcision, jumps up from under the big bush and runs to greet the men on the road.
     We are not told who the men are.  Much hay has been made over the years interpreting the passage.  Are they angels?  Are they somehow the Triune God walking the earth?  Are they just common men given the voice of the Lord?  We do not know, and Scripture seems not to think that detail important.  What we do know is that despite his physical discomfort, Abraham runs to the men and enjoins them to rest with him during the heat of the day.  It is at this point that we often hear long sermons on the obligation of hospitality.  I will not be taking that path as I do not believe it is the lesson we are called to consider here at Advent.  But notice the details.  Abraham offers water to drink and to clean themselves, a morsel of bread, and a place in the shade.  What he gives them is bread made from the “king’s flour,” the best flour he has available, curds and milk – dare we think butter--, and meat.  Abraham offers a small repast and escape and provides a feast.
     Then begins the part that should interest us this day at Advent.  One of the strangers asks Abraham where his wife Sarah is.  Hmmm.  How do they know her name?  Has a servant let her name slip?  Has Abraham called her name out loud in giving instructions?  We just don’t know.  What we do know is that she is inside the tent.  You have probably heard it told to you over and over and over again that Jewish women were simply property of their husbands.  You have probably heard it so many times that you accept that idea as a foundational truth.  It is not.  I will not go into all the details this morning, as it is not the focus of this sermon for today, but the Jews in particular were weird in the Ancient Near East because they elevated women.  Oh, to be sure, by modern standards, there was no exact equality.  But it is the Jews who make the revealed claim to the world that women and men both are created in the image of God.  For a Jewish male to be able to sit at the gate and make decisions for a village, a wife had to be running the household well.  They had different jobs, but no faithful Jewish male would have ever thought of his wife as property.  And if he did, she would likely disabuse him of that stupid notion quickly and loudly.  The first Jewish audience would have likely thought it weird that Sarah was not playing the proper role of hostess with respect to these three strangers, just as her husband was playing the role of host.  What details we have remind us of that, right?  While Abraham is choosing the calf, Sarah is making the loaves of bread.  She is as active in hospitality as her husband except for this one detail: she stays in the tent.  Why?
     I think the reason is told us in the passage.  Our translators render her condition in such wonderful euphemism.  She was advanced in age and it had ceased to be with her in the manner of women.  LOL  I wish I had been videoing you all as I said that sentence.  I thought there was a lot of squirming when I spoke of the circumcision of Abraham’s retinue.  Yes.  Sarah is post-menopausal.  Big shock, I know.  A ninety year old woman no longer menstruates.  That is a significant detail on two accounts, though.  Given the upcoming revelation, how can she and Abraham have a child together?  Not to be crass, but they are of an age when one need not worry about birth control.  In fact, our society spends a small fortune annually trying to reverse the effects of such aging on our libidos and on our ability to enjoy sex.
     Just as significantly, though, I think it provides us with the reason why Sarah stays in the tent and avoids hosting the strangers with her husband.  Your squirming a few moments ago, when I pointed out she was post-menopausal, hints at the discomfort we feel about menstruating women.  It’s culturally ingrained in us.  Many cultures freak at the idea of menstruating women.  We have texts from the ANE, in particular, which forbid menstruating women coming into the presence of a king or his retinue.  Heck, the Jews will received God’s holy instruction, the torah, which will tell them that menstruating women cannot go to the Temple while on their periods and that ritual purification will be required after the bleeding stops in order to worship God.  Blood “down there” is a subject to be avoided at all costs.
     Now, place yourself in Sarah’s tent.  Culturally, you are likely expected to absent yourself from others while menstruating.  You have been feted by kings.  You were courageous enough to follow your husband on a crazy journey.  You have been left in charge while he went after Lot.  You are not known for your timidity or lack of confidence.  Yet now you stay in a tent?  When hospitality demands your presence, you absent yourself?  I think the likely happening here was that she started bleeding while making the bread.  Being a woman of a certain age and wisdom, she understands what this means.  Today we would recognize it as a sign of cervical or other internal cancers.  For women of her day, it was a sign of death.  Old women bleeding down there was never a good sign.
     Is this explicit in the text?  No.  But it does answer a couple important questions.  Why does she stay in the tent?  What prompts the stranger to make the weird prophesy?  To our ears, the prophesy sounds out of place.  Why not wait until they are both there?  The stranger knows Sarah’s name.  Now that we learn it is the Lord, we know He knows everything about her.  What prompts Him to make that promise in this way?  Imagine the timing.  She thinks she has received a death sentence, and the Lord tells her and Abraham that He will return in a year to see her son.  That might cause any of us to laugh, to scoff at the Lord’s promise, and to do so determinedly.
     Laughter, of course, figures prominently into this section of the life of the holy family.  Much is made of her laughing and Abraham’s laughing.  Abraham will stop laughing, and Sarah will deny that she laughed.  The child born as a result of this prophesy will be named, Isaac, which means “he laughs.”  The split between Ishmael and Isaac will be over what?  Laughter.  Sarah will see Ishmael making young Isaac laugh, and she decides to cast Hagar and the young man out.  The cultural root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is laughter.
     What would cause Sarah to scoff so much?  What would cause her not to believe the Lord, once she knew His identity?  Given their shared experiences and multiple redemptive events, what would cause Sarah to be a bit harder of heart than Abraham?  It fits, does it not?  That’s not to say something else might fit, but maybe it helps us understand Sarah’s fear.  She and her husband have had 24 years of experience the presence and provision of the Lord.  What could cause her to fear but death itself?
     Into that scoffing and reflection, the Lord hurls another question.  Is anything too wonderful / too hard for the Lord?  Clearly the question is rhetorical.  He expects a “no” answer.  And His question carries a range of meaning.  The word our translators chose to render as wonderful can also mean hard or difficult.  A fairer translation for us might be, Ís anything beyond the Lord?  He can do anything.  It does not matter how hard it seems to us, how wonderful it seems to us, how out of place it may seem to us, God can do whatever He pleases.  He can even cause a woman almost a hundred years of age to become pregnant for the first time and bear a son, even when her experience and the world’s wisdom proclaims something else!  And such knowledge, such faith, ought to inspire in us a joyful laughter.  Why do we gather here this morning?  What is the meaning of Eucharist?  It is good thanks.  It is joyful thanks.  We gather here each week to remind ourselves of the saving work God has done through the birth of another Babe, and we gather to thank Him joyfully for all that He has done is our lives.
     How does such a narrative apply to us at Church of the Advent in Nashville Tennessee some three thousand years later?  The connection, it seems to me, is easy to see.  Do we reflect a community, a Christian community, that is joyfully confident in the promises and power of God?  Certainly the events of the last couple months would testify against us.  In many ways, we have been a community of scoffers like Sarah, rather than a community of joyful believers.  What’s the impact?  Place yourself in the role of a visitor, either someone who believes in the promises and power of God already or one who is seeking this person we call God.  How would you the visitor respond to us?  If the people you encountered lived fearful or angry or scoffing lives, would you be drawn in?  Or would you continue to look elsewhere?  Would you wonder whether such a community of so-called faith knew God?
     And please do not hear me condemning you this morning.  This is an “us” thing.  I am often the chief scoffer among you.  After eight o’clock I was asked when I scoff.  An easy one was during the search process.  At that time I knew very few Adventers, maybe Dale and Dick.  I had met Tina in the office and talked to Hunter on the phone and by e-mail.  The rest of you were pictures or blank spaces in a directory.  That first morning I get the e-mail and then the phone call from Justin’s secretary about Rome.  Talk about a scoffer.  I am the guy who hangs up the phone because stuff like that does not happen!  I have laid hands on a dying person and watched God heal them.  I have experienced provision in the most incredible ways.  And I thought something as unremarkable as a secretary calling for an Archbishop of Canterbury was unbelievable.  Not once did it occur to me that she had tracked me down to a Holiday Inn Express in Cool Springs.  I can certainly relate to Sarah’s scoffing.
     Most of you all know that in a prior life I was a broker.  Prior to that I had studied Classics.  One of Karen’s and my dreams or grand plans was that, after we made our fortune and the four kids had grown, we would go to Rome and Athens.  We would do it right.  When I finally accepted a call to seminary, that was just one of the dreams that Karen and I had to accept was never going to happen.  In my finite wisdom, I knew churches could not support priests with four kids.  It was too hard; it was too expensive.  And I found myself in a hotel in Cool Springs listening to the Archbishop’s secretary asking me to work for him and the Holy Father, at the Holy Father’s request!  What I got out of that was a bit of a tour of Rome that I would never have gotten otherwise.  I could have been as rich as our current President, and it would have done me no good.  And yes, there is more that I wish I could have seen and done, and all of it with my wife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams.  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?  My laughter changed from scoffing to something far more joyful.
     I was reminded of that question again this week when James Harvey came into my office.  Due to our schedules, I don’t think we had connected since Lent.  We chuckle at how we met, sometimes, but James came in this week to touch base and share a couple stories.  For those of you wondering why the name is tickling your ears, you pray for him and his family every week in the Prayer of the People and you have supported them through discretionary funds. 
     James recently returned from a mission trip to Siberia.  James and his team had gone with the intention of planting a church in an unchurched valley in Siberia.  When they arrived in this valley, they found that God had gone ahead of them.  Though the world thought this valley unchurched, there was a man functioning as a bi-vocational clergy there.  Well, bi-vocational in the sense that he was paid for his secular work and able to do the pastoring stuff for free.  As they spent time with this man, the team realized they had misheard their call.  They were helping water and nurture a church that had already formed before their arrival.  They had to set aside their plans and do the work God had given them to do.
     Unknown to them at the beginning was the redemptive role they were playing in this pastor’s life.  You see, when he first felt this urge or call to start a home church, he went to the next valley over and spoke to the mainline missionaries over there.  They were encouraging in that they were excited he had been called.  But they were discouraging in that there was a lot he needed to do before they would sign off on him being a pastor in their traditions.  This group of missionaries simply accepted the man and began working with him to teach him what he kind of already knew.  They let him ask lots of questions and steer the conversation where he wanted, no doubt with sharing bits of their wisdom.  When the man was too busy with work, the missionary team even dug him a new mechanic’s bay, so he could work on more cars—or hire others to do the work for him, freeing him up for more of the work of a church.  By the end of their time there, the team and the pastor were sharing their personal stories of redemption in their lives—how God had provided in the midst of privation, how God had healed bodies that were broken, and how God is always to be glorified for that amazing grace in their lives.  A pastor, who had been rejected for lack of learning and a lack of not doing this planting thing the right way by some, found himself encouraged by others, others who were rejoicing that in this pastor, yet another of God’s promises had been fulfilled!  He runs ahead of us and with us!  He uses the uneducated to His wise purposes!
     And, lest you think that these are special stories, that God rewards priests and missionaries because they are special, think of our collective history at Advent.  Our spiritual forebears fought poverty in the early and mid 1800’s.  Think of the absurdity of that notion.  Our Episcopal forebears, the rich and power Episcopalians of the cathedral in Nashville, TN, decided that the poor should be free to worship God with the rich and powerful.  How do you think other Episcopalians took to that odd notion?  Today it seems rather passé, but in those days it was revolutionary!  And they were the shakers and movers of this community!  They were the politicians, the doctors, the accountants.  We are not known for our work with blue collar folks today.  We tend to attract white collar or entrepreneurial individuals to our worship.  Yet our forebears held so tightly to the idea that God loves the poor that they split from that congregation and founded a church that rejected pew taxes.  Can you imagine!  And yet that scoffing turned to joy years later in the Church, when the Church finally lived up to the reminder that God loves the widow, the orphan, the outcast, and the poor.
     And then, some three decades later, another later generation of our spiritual forebears found themselves in the middle of the race wars of the 1870’s.  As crazy as suggesting that God loves poor people might sound, can you imagine yourself with the courage and conviction to tell your recently defeated brothers and sisters that God loved the freed slave as much as he loved the wealthy white folk?  Who among us would have that kind of courage?  Yet Adventers did.  Adventers helped lead the effort to incorporate the freed slaves in the life of worship in the Southern Church, especially in and around Nashville.  Can you imagine the scoffing they faced?  Can you imagine the resistance?  When George and Billy stepped into the anti-racism leadership role in the diocese, I know they wondered the use.  I’m sure some of you wondered what good it would do.  But in God’s eyes, it seems rather normal for Adventers to be taking on incredible evil, such as slavery, poverty, or racism, confident in His promises and His ability to redeem.  While the work may be daunting and oppressive, we can face it with joyful laughter, expectant that He will use our faithful labors to His redemptive purposes, and bring true joy.  Such has been His work since the days of Abraham and Sarah, such as been His work during the first generations of this parish, and such will be His work in this day and in this place, if we but seek out His will and His purposes.
     Brothers and sisters, fellow Adventers, I realize that these last few months have been challenging.  I recognize that there is a level of anxiety as we have been working to figure out our Lord’s plan for us in this community and in our age.  I get all that.  There is much about which we can be concerned and some things which could easily distract us.  But we are the inheritors of those promises made to Abraham and Sarah so long ago in Mamre.  We are the inheritors of that courage and perseverance imparted to Adventers in ages past.  We are, each of us, by virtue of our baptism into our Lord’s death and Resurrection, promised that He is with us in whatever journey we take, even when we take detours or choose routes that seemingly make things tougher for Him to redeem.  And we are promised that, so long as we seek to glorify Him in our lives, both collectively and individually, He will bless us and glorify Himself in us.  That is His promise to us as sons and daughters; that is His promise to us as His covenantal Bride.  The real question for us, the question that others likely have for us when they visit, is whether we are scoffers or joyful believers.  How we act, how we speak, how we love, even how we dispute testifies to them our answer to that question, Is anything too wonderful or too hard for the Lord?

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Looking back and looking forward, changing our perspective . . .

     Six or eight weeks ago, I was approached by a parishioner.  We’ll call him “Ralph.”  “Ralph” was dreaming a bit and wondering how cool it would be to see his beloved Penguins play the Predators in the Stanley Cup Finals.  He was also worried about split loyalties.  To take us all back in time, the Predators were the last team in the playoffs in the Western Conference.  They were playing the top seed in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks.  Pittsburgh, of course, was more likely to get to the finals.  Their only real obstacle, at least according to the pundits, was the Washington Capitals.  Fast forward to today, the Preds and the Pens start the series for Lord Stanley’s Cup this week in Pittsburgh.  I have advised “Ralph” that he should just wear a yellow shirt and sit on his hands for the games at Bridgestone! 
     I know some of you sometimes wonder whether I have a plan, whether there is a madness to my method (just testing to see if you are awake this morning), or a planning process at all when it comes to preaching and teaching in the parish.  As I began to prepare for this sermon, I was laughing at the plan I had way back in February.  To take you all back in time with me once again, I had been given permission by the members of the Vestry to rip the band aid off quickly, rather than pull slowly, when it came to doing the work of discernment and living into our discernment as a parish.  I expected that Vestry would begin to probe and test through prayer and fasting, and we as a parish would probe and test through prayer, fasting, and ministry efforts.  I had thought at the time I would spend our time in the season of Easter in the book of Acts, reminding us all that our story is a continuation of the book of Acts.  We are not continuing the book as if we are adding to the canon, but we are continuing the book in the sense of what comes next in God’s redemptive story.  Alas, such has not been how life has gone here these last few months.  We are still engaged in the beginning of discernment, and God seems to have pulled me to other lessons this season of Easter.  I share the story of my “it’ll never happen” with “Ralph” and the story of how I expected this season of Easter to unfold in our midst as a cautionary tale.  Things do not always go like we expect, nor did they always go the way our spiritual ancestors expected.
     This week, though, I think I am supposed to preach on Acts.  So turn in your Orders of Worship to that reading, if you want to follow along.  This section begins with a question that must have had Jesus ready to pull his hair out or blast His disciples with lightning bolts.  Maybe it’s a lesson to clergy that we need great patience with our Vestries?  To put the question in context, though, let me remind you that the disciples and apostles had been travelling with Jesus for three years.  For three long years, He had taught them about God’s plan of salvation and how He was instrumental in God’s plan.  In fact, He had taught them that He was God incarnate.  These same disciples had witnessed the Crucifixion, which Jesus had prophesied, and the Resurrection---again, a prophesy of Jesus.  If they had any doubts about the teachings of Jesus or His sanity, those doubts should have been trumped by the Resurrection.  In truth, the miracles should have been enough, but these men and women, certain ladies are mentioned as disciples in this passage, have encountered the Resurrected Jesus!  Like Thomas, their doubts should have been assuaged.  And after all this, they ask that stupid question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of heaven?”
     You may think the question innocuous, but that great Anglican theologian John Stott often taught and preached that this question is entirely grammatically wrong.  It is so wrong that they do not get a part of the sentence correct.  The disciples and apostles get the verb wrong, the noun wrong, and the adverb wrong.  And despite the evidence that testified to the truth of Jesus’ words and teaching, they demonstrate the fact that they have not yet grasped His teaching.
     The first error is the adverb.  Is now the time that God will complete His work?  Much hay and great litmus tests are created about figuring out the date of the end time.  No matter the parish, such is always a lingering question.  We are instructed to live as if Christ could return any moment, but we are also repeatedly told throughout Scripture that we are not going to be given the times and periods God has set by His authority.  But we are sometimes seduced by those who point to specific dates as the beginning of the end times.  Social media helps fan that anxiety.  Every single time some nut job or self-aggrandizer takes to the pulpit to declare a date, it seems like social media picks it up and spreads it.
     Case in point: A couple weeks ago, my FB feed started showing a bunch of articles on the upcoming total eclipse.  I forget how many years it’s been, maybe 30?, but we in Nashville will get a total eclipse in August.  A swath from here to Seattle, I think, will be included.  Most of the articles were safety-related (don’t look directly at an eclipse) or travel related (the best destination cities for viewing).  I remember chuckling to myself that at least no one was predicting the eclipse as a doomsday signal.  Then, a couple days later, an Adventer sent me an article and asked me what I thought of the “Christian” group’s claim that August 21 would be the end of the world.  By the end of that week, a half dozen Adventers had asked me to share what I thought about this group’s claim.
     What the disciples and apostles missed and what we miss is that we are not going to know the time.  Oh, to be sure, we have a lucky guess chance of getting the date right.  But it’s just a guess.  Why do we feel tempted to spend so much time trying to figure out a date?  Why do we not listen to our Lord and realize it is not given to us to know the date?  Why?  Why are we seduced by the pursuit of such knowledge?  In reality, we, like the disciples and apostles who came before, are called to live each day as if this might be the Day.  We are called to live as if the preparation for the Day really began Easter Sunday almost 2000 years ago.
     Look how such “guessing” dishonors the Lord.  Every time there is a comet or a significant event, “Christians” seek to scare the world with a claimed certain knowledge of the date.  And when they are wrong, what happens?  People doubt God’s message.  People doubt God’s messengers, you and me and everyone else who call Him Lord.  People doubt God.  And we wonder why they mock us?  Imagine the testimony if we just lived our lives as if each moment could be the last moment!  That was Jesus’s instruction to His disciples and Apostles.  I will return, so get to work!
     Of course, the adverb is not the only part of their question that reflects that they still do not understand what Jesus was teaching them.  Look at the noun.  With what are the disciples and apostles concerned?  The kingdom of Israel.  Now, Jesus has reaffirmed Israel’s unique role in God’s redemptive plan—they are called to be a nation of priests, a light unto the world.  But Jesus has been teaching them about a far greater kingdom than that of what you and I, or the disciples listening to this teaching, think of as the nation-state of Israel.  He has been teaching them of the kingdom of God.  As good as things were under David or Solomon or Josiah or any other king you might think, Jesus has an even more magnificent kingdom in mind.  And they, like us, are heralds and workers in that kingdom.  This kingdom transcends time and space though it can be seen in this time and in this place.  It is, in the end, the recreation of everything as it ought to be, and not just settling for “as good as it can get here.”  For us, the Church or the people of God, such should be our focus.  The principalities and powers of the world claim to us all the time that the world is the way that it is or we are the measure of all things.  But we know better!  God has revealed Himself and His love to us fully and completely in His Son our Lord Christ!  All authority has been given to Him.  And we know that He will return one day to consummate this recreation begun that Good Friday and Easter morning so long ago.
     What happens when we get that noun wrong in our lives?  Look around.  Listen.  Evangelical Christian groups placed a mantle about a particular candidate in our last election.  Some were the complete opposite of me.  I reminded us not to put our faith in any human beings; but some pastors claimed all Christians were obligated to support only one candidate.  How has that played out for them?  How will that play out for us?  Do we as a country really want to claim we are God’s chosen sovereign nation?  I mean, sure there are benefits, but there is also cost and obligation.  And if we align ourselves with a political party, as if we are of and in this world, look at the dishonor we bring upon our Lord.  Non-Christians who have read the Bible challenge us on our stances on immigration or health care, if we are Republicans, or maybe classism or racism, if we are Republicans.  True, each party does some things which I think would please our Lord, but I have no doubt each does things that causes other citizens to doubt Him and His messengers.
     The verb in question also signifies that the disciples have missed His teaching.  Restore.  Restore implies that Jesus is simply about the business of bringing back what was.  I suppose, as Christians, we understand that God will recreate things like they were in the Garden, so in some sense, we will be restored to full communion with God.  We will walk with Him, talk with Him, glorify Him, and simply engage with Him in a manner that is beyond the best would could ever imagine.  But the disciples are simply looking for Him to bring back the glory years of the kingdom of Israel.  Maybe they like the militaristic past of David.  Perhaps they long for the wealth and wisdom of Solomon’s reign.  Could it be that they long for the peace of Josiah’s reign?  We are not told.  We simply learn that they are looking merely for restoration of some “golden-age,” when Jesus clearly has in mind something far greater than they could ever imagine.
     Again, how this plays out in our life at Advent is plain enough for good ol’ blind Bartimaeus to see.  How much of our anxiety, how much of our fear is caused by the realization that the church of today is not the church of yesterday nor the church of tomorrow?  I still believe that most of our angst is caused by a sense of loss combined with a lack of vision for the future.  Many of us look back a decade or three and in our mind’s eye see the sanctuary full, the rector handsome and priestly, hear the choir in all its glorious sound, remember the youth programs bursting at the seams, remember that everything was polished fine, and that everyone gathered was dressed to the nines.  We lament what we think is lost.  And we worry whether anything is to come.  In this we are like those disciples so long ago.  We forget that God is always about His work, renewing, refreshing, invigorating.
     In truth, none of us gathered at Advent really remember THE glory years of the parish.  Given that Charles Todd Quintard is now a celebrated saint in our wider church’s life, maybe the parish of his time represents our glory years.  Of course, some might argue that it was our founding to oppose pew taxes that served best to glorify God.  Others may say that when Adventers have been elevated to the role of bishop we were really glorifying God.  I’m sure there are other times that meet the definition of glory years for a parish.  But the fact that we can argue about them ought to give us some serious hope.  If we have had six or eight or ten glorious periods where the Gospel was proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit in word and deed, what’s to prevent a next golden age?  Why can there not be a seventh, ninth, or eleventh period that contests for our glory years?
     All of this, and Jesus’ counter-instructions, are given in light of the looming Ascension and coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  When Jesus takes the time to rebuke and to remind the disciples and us that we are called to preach and teach the Gospel to the ends of the earth in the midst of this and that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and us, we know that they are His final earthly instructions.  He goes to prepare a place for us, but we have work to do until His return!  And to help us do the work He has given us to do, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit.  In fact, our primary focus really ought be this, His last instructions!  How often, though, are we like those early disciples?  How often are we consumed by our own foci and not our Lord’s?  In one sense, the book of Acts is all about the work of the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, seeking to accomplish the will of God to His honor and His glory.  That you and I gather here today, some 2000 years later and however many miles distant, testifies to us that the disciples listened to Him and that He sent that promised Spirit.  In other words, the book of Acts is the introduction to Advent’s  story, or Advent’s story is an appendix to the book of Acts.  Take your pick.
     This brief and final teaching is significant because it reminds us, all Christians, of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church.  We need the Holy Spirit to understand our mission, our calling, in the world.  But we come to know the Holy Spirit better through our engagement in God’s mission in the world.  It’s both incredibly freeing and incredibly weighting.  We are promised that God is present with us as we discern and exercise our gifts for ministry--in fact, we would say the Spirit gives us those necessary gifts--, but we would also remind ourselves and others that it is the exercise of those gifts and talents that we experience the risen Christ of whom you and I are witnesses.  The application at Advent is probably obvious to those of us who self-describe as Adventers, or at least it should be.  Real ministry, real mission that glories God, can only be done in the power of the Holy Spirit; and God will become better known to us as we engage in those Spirit-led individual and corporate ministries.
     So, how does it speak to us in Nashville some nineteen centuries later and however many miles distant?  First, there is power in this truth.  Our gathering here is a fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.  When Rome ruled the world, no ambitious politician or military man wanted to serve in Judea.  No one.  And as we know from the Apostle Nathaniel, those in Judea did not have a good impression of those who were from Nazareth.  In some ways, Nazareth was the backwater region of the backwater province of the civilized world.  Growing up in West Virginia, we would give thanks for Louisiana and Mississippi because they sometimes made us look good by comparison, but nobody in the United States, except people born in those states, really wants to be from those states.  So it was in Rome with Judea.  Yet, within three centuries, after countless deaths and incredible persecutions, the Gospel of Christ conquers the Empire.  In that conversion of an emperor and assents of the aristocracy are born the seeds that make their way to this place.  Think of all the threats that must have been overcome to reach you and me in this place.  I have lived here only two years, but I have heard from some of you and read in books some of the challenges faced when settling this land.  I have read of some of the challenges that faced our parish ancestors within our beloved church.
     Our parish ancestors rejected the accepted idea that the poor were second class citizens in the church, and so they set out to form a new parish that was committed to the image of God in every single human being and to the breaking of human-created barriers that separated the poor from God.  That commitment to the image of God in everyone later put our ancestors at odds with their Christian brothers and sisters again as we struggled with the role of freed slaves in the church.  My predecessors and your spiritual ancestors took seriously Jesus prayer for unity and fought the tides of post-Civil War racism in the South and lobbied for the full inclusion of the freed slaves.  Most of us would agree that levels of racism exist still today, but can you imagine the racism of the 1860’s and 70’s that was, in part, fueled by the bitterness of defeat?  And make no mistake, some of those freed slaves took courageous leaps of faith and stayed in our church, against the seductive calls of their fellow freed-slaves, all in an effort to love and serve God to His glory.  Freed slaves rejecting the call of their brothers and sisters; whites rejecting the accepted teaching of the day—in some ways, our forebears at Advent were the outcasts of the outcast.  Yet the Gospel was preached.  Lives were transformed.  Buildings were built and sold.  And today, you and I are reminded that He promised His Gospel would reach to the ends of the earth.  Our presence today testifies to that truth.
     That’s not the only lesson for us at Advent, though.  These first five months of discernment have not gone well.  We have had some difficulty starting the process; we have had different “buy-in” among members.  How do we pray?  How do we fast?  How do we study?  How do we hear the voice of God?  How do we recognize the presence of that Spirit which our Lord promised?  We have had a budget issue—no real surprise since we had no stewardship program, which caused a great deal of anxiety, anger, or worry.  In many ways, we are just like those disciples who asked Jesus this question so long ago.  One repeated criticism is that I am unengaged about the financial issues at Advent, that I am not hammering us enough, that I am too focused on mission discernment and evangelism.
     My patient response has been that I understand the priorities.  Provision always follows mission.  Always.  If we properly discern God’s call upon our corporate and parish lives, provision will not be an issue.  I’m not saying that we will ever be flush with cash.  I am saying that everything we need to accomplish God’s will in our lives will be provided—be it money, passion, numbers of volunteers, expertise, leadership—whatever is need for us to glorify God in this place at this time will be provided by that same Spirit He promised to send to lead us.  And here’s the even better news: if we fail, if we make a mistake, if we mishear His voice, He forgives.  He not only promises to forgive those who repent, but He promises to redeem!  Think of that freedom, brothers and sisters!  Those of us seeking to do His will in our lives or in this parish can really make a mess of things in our lives or our parish, but He promises to redeem our mistakes.  With penitent and obedient hearts, His Gospel spreads like a wildfire.
     You all know this.  Yes, there are pockets of classism still rampant in the human heart, but how many of those same churches that were insistent our parish ancestors were wrong to lower the barriers to God for the impoverished in our midst take that stand now?  How many churches proclaim “only the rich are lived by God?”  If any denomination has a reputation for elitism, it’s Episcopalians.  Yet Episcopalians at Advent were the ones discerning God’s will better 150 years ago!  And yes, there are pockets of racism still rampant in the human heart, but how many of our churches, Episcopal churches, are confused as safe havens for racial hate groups?  Clearly, God forgives those who repents and redeems and blesses.  We are witnesses to His redeeming grace!
     That brings me to the last important message to us this morning: Witnessing.  If you are visiting today, you may feel like you have stumbled into a bit of a family history lesson.  I have spoken of parish, and diocese, and regional corporate history.  You may feel a bit detached from those stories; you may wonder at their significance in your life, especially if you are not Episcopalian or if you are seeking God.  But I am here to remind you that the history of which I have been speaking is the history of all of God’s people.  If I have done my job well this morning, if I have effectively proclaimed the truth of the book of Acts, you now see God’s story at work in our lives, in our parish, and in our city, fulfilling the promise He made to those men and women in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago.  And those stories I have told are part of your story because you are among those who love Him and call Him Lord.
     Every single person whom God calls into relationship with Himself is transformed and empowered to testify to His saving grace.  Every. Single. Person.  No exceptions.  The shape and form of that testimony may differ greatly from individual to individual, but that is the real point of everything we do!  Everything the parish does is about equipping and preparing the saints for this witnessing we have been describing.  Our worship, our study, our prayers, our sermon time, our fellowship time, our budget, our meeting times, our pastoral care efforts—all of it is done with an eye to helping each and every one of us see God’s grace at work in our lives so that we might be more effective witnesses.  It can be challenging because it is not formulaic.  But it can be incredibly rich and diverse because of the individuals involved.  How I speak of God as a professional clergy person differs from how an insurance salesman might or a teacher or a musician or medical professional or an athlete.  I might use words, but others may use service or music or art or still other ways.  Earlier I spoke of our ancestors recognizing that the poor and freed slaves were created in the image of God.  The outflow of that understanding is the recognition that God can and does use all of His sons and daughters for His redemptive purposes.  Some of those uses may be subtle—how we show hope in the midst of disease or death, how we give generously in the midst of financial uncertainty, how we relate to others--; others may be radical and profound—such as taking a fisherman who denied Him three times in the face of common folk and giving Him words to say in front of the Sanhedrin a few weeks later!  You and I fall somewhere along that spectrum.  We are somewhere between subtle and incredibly visible witnesses.  And God has promised, as reminded this day by Luke, that He has made His Spirit available to each of us, that He might be glorified in our lives, in our churches, and in the world around us.
     Brothers and sisters, as we wrap up this season of Easter, as we begin to embark in that wonderful season of growth we have a perfectly assigned lesson.  We have been reminded for seven weeks that we are a people of the Resurrection.  Just as significantly, though, we are a people empowered by the Holy Spirit entrusted with the incredible responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed so that He might be glorified in our lives, that His kingdom might continue to grow, and that the world will be restored to its Creator!  It is unfathomable responsibility and awesome opportunity.  Perhaps even more frightening, He allows us to discern what He wants us to do!  He woos us, He nudges us, He grants us peace and passion that the world does not know.  And individual by individual, His kingdom grows.  What is He nudging you to do?  What is He wooing Advent to do?  As we return to that long season of green, how is He calling upon each of us to grow in our relationship with Him?  Just as He was willing with those disciples across the oceans and continents and so long ago, He wants nothing more than to work with and through each one of us.  Who knows?  Such is His willingness to pour out grace and honor on all who serve him, maybe a couple centuries hence Adventers of the future will speak of your names in the same loving reverence we speak of Quintard, Sanders, Longhurst, MacGruder, and whatever other names for whose witness you give thanks to God!

Peace,

Brian†