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!



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