Saturday, May 12, 2018

On Ascension and assurance . . .

     Happy Feast of the Ascension!  I know, it’s a weird greeting to our ears.  Ascension is one of those important feast days that has, for all practical purposes, been forgotten in much of the modern Church.  Oh, if you have some devout friends, you may see it mentioned on FB –my favorite meme today was how the Church has Ascension Deficit Disorder – but, I have weird friends, many of whom are clergy and have received a double portion of sarcasm as a gift of the Holy Spirit on the occasion of their ordinations.  Some of your Roman or Eastern friends may mention it after this weekend.  Heck, you may have friends in the Episcopal Church who will be in parishes that celebrate it this Sunday, even though it is not a movable feast.
     Part of the problem, as you all know, is the timing.  The celebration always happens two Thursdays before Pentecost.  People are busy during the week.  Add in a Predators’ playoff game, and it is hard to convince people to take time out of their schedules.  The other problem, more significantly I think, is the meaning.  Why do we celebrate it?  What is the significance of the events memorialized in this feast?
     Part of the reason we talked in Liturgy & Worship about re-introducing the celebration at Church of the Advent was that latter question.  Pastorally speaking, the Ascension of Jesus is significant and speaks directly to some of those fears, spoken or unspoken, that we have about God when it comes to us.  But before we speak to the pastoral significance of today’s events, I want to remind us all about just how important this event was in the life of the early Church and to God.
     Put on your thinking caps for just a second.  During the life and ministry of Jesus, how many events are attested by the presence of angels?  How many times is the significance of an event in the life of Jesus witnessed by or described by the supernatural presence of angels?  Come on.  This is not a rhetorical question.  Ok.  Let’s try it a different way.  When do angels first attest to Jesus?  That’s right!  The Incarnation.  The angelic choir sings to the glory of God after the angels explain to the shepherds what has happened.  The Incarnation, I think we can all agree, is fairly significant. 
     When’s the next time we see angels attesting to the work of Jesus?  Baptism?  Hmm.  Is that angels, or is that God’s voice and the Spirit like a dove?  Don’t apologize, it is a supernatural attestation.  It just is not angelic.  Here’s a hint: we just reminded ourselves on April 1.  Easter.  That’s right!  The Resurrection!  It is the angels who are present to explain to Mary the significance of what has happened.  No one has stolen Jesus’ body; He has been raised from the dead!
     Ok, when’s the last time we see angels testifying to the work of Jesus?  That’s right, the Ascension!  Luke, of course, tells the story of the Ascension as the beginning of the Church in the book of Acts.  The angels explain that the disciples are wasting time staring into the sky and clouds, that Jesus will return in the same way He left, and that they have work to do!
    Now, before we talk about the significance, you should have a pretty good idea as to the significance of the event we remember today, at least in the eyes of God.  God the Father sent angels to explain to humans the birth of His Son, the Resurrection of His Son, and the Ascension of His Son.  It puts the Feast of the Ascension in rarefied air in God’s economy.  Other events are significant to us, but many do not find themselves attested by angels.  Now, aren’t you glad you came tonight?  Don’t you feel that maybe you were drawn to thank and praise God for this incredible work, and now you know why?  It’s ok to laugh.  It’s a wonderful and confusing event.
     What makes it confusing, of course, is the question of what is going on.  In truth, the Ascension touches on a great deal of our understanding of the Trinity, which means we flirt a bit with a Holy Mystery.  The Son has gone back to be with the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come.  In a way, Jesus’ Ascension marks a change in the relationship between God and His people.  For a bit more than three decades, the God Incarnate Man Divine has dwelt, in time and space, in a particular location with His people.  For 30+ years, God has literally tabernacled, enfleshed Himself, among His people, bringing healing and wisdom and blessing and whatever else upon which we would like to focus.  While He was human, He was self-limiting in His scope.  Where He went, so did the shalom of God.  People could ask Him for provision, for healing, for instruction, or even to raise a loved one.  Heck, as He walked by, one could touch the hem of His robe and be healed!  Now, of course, He has gone back to be with the Father so that the Paraclete can come and empower us, the Church.  Put a bit simpler, while Jesus was on earth, God’s focus was upon those things that came to the attention of Jesus.  Now, though, the Spirit has been given to all His disciples, so that His work can be dispersed throughout the whole world.  And, as the Son says, we will be able to accomplish greater things than He because of His empowering Spirit!  I know.  It’s mind blowing.  That’s kind of the nature of Holy Mysteries.
     But there is a deeper pastoral significance, I think to us, in this Ascension that we celebrate today, than the mere exercise of power and the teaching of God in His Name.  We may even be in a better frame of mind to hear the significance thanks to the baptism of JJ last week, and our discussions of grafting into the Vine, and thanks to the fact that some of us are already looking forward to Pentecost, when we begin to focus on the gifts given to us for the purpose of glorifying God in our lives, and, of course, to the presence of the Paschal Candle and baptismal fount front and center in our liturgical life.
     When we are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, what happens to us?  How do we describe the significance of the event to ourselves and others?  Why do we pour the water over the heads of those seeking that sacrament?  I heard it!  Say it with confidence!  That’s right, we are baptized into His death and raised with Him in His Resurrection!  We will only skim the surface tonight, but think back to those words in the baptismal service as the clergy pour the water.  In it we are buried with Christ in His death.  By it we share in His Resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  In a mysterious way, the sinful part of us dies, the part of us that seeks to serve God with everything is raised, and we experience our own moment of Pentecost where we are given the charisms, gifts, necessary to glorify God in our lives.
     Make no mistake, it is a profound mystery and promise.  We commit to living to the glory of God, we reject our selfish ways and the ways of those spiritual forces that would lead us away from God’s blessing, we ask God for His forgiveness, and we are promised that we are inheritors, as first born sons and daughters, of our Father in heaven.  From that moment on, once we are sealed, God sees His Son in us and us in His Son.  Why do I bring this up in the context of pastoral care?
     How many of us wonder if God is paying attention to us?  How many of us think God has more important things to do like prevent nuclear war in the Middle East or nudge asteroids or meteors out of our path?  How many of us think our problems, our needs, pale when compared to the so-called important people we see?  How many of us listen to the whisper of the Enemy and believe that we are insignificant in God’s eyes?  No, I don’t need raised hands.  I know we all go through those valleys.  Some of us probably wonder if we ever get to get out of our valleys.  Heck, a few of us worry that we are the ones excluded from God’s promises, such is our seeming lot on earth.
     The Ascension, of course, speaks against those fears and doubts and worries.  If Jesus is in us and we are in Him, if we are nourished by His Body and Blood, and if we are part of His Body, is it not true, in some mysterious way that we cannot begin to grasp intellectually, that the beginning of the resurrected part of us already present with God?  We rightfully focus on the fact that the Son now sits at the right hand of the Father making intercessions for us, empowering us, giving us opportunities to glorify Him in our life and work.  But we should never forget that His presence there, in a similarly significant way, reminds us of the intimate relationship we now have open with our Father in heaven.  Our concerns are not beneath Him.  Our fears and doubts are not insignificant to Him when compared with the needs of others or the world.  In a way, we are already beginning that process of sanctification and transformation which will make possible our eternal dwelling with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!  But even now, He is with us and we are with Him!
      How do you know, absolutely know, that your needs, your hurt, your fears, are before God, that you matter to God?  The Ascension speaks to that truth and the comfort which we should experience because of it.  Nothing is ever beneath His notice, but each of us who have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of His Son our Lord, is already, in the participation of these Holy Mysteries, assured that we are, in a barest, shadowy way, there.  Better than us He knows our needs.  Better than us, He knows our strengths and weaknesses and foibles and hearts.  But like a Father with a firstborn son or precious only daughter, our Father looks on each one of us, and knows us in His Son, and the plans He will accomplish for us.  Brothers and sisters, Scripture teaches us that God never makes fun of our hurts, our pains, our doubts, our fears.  In fact, if anything, we learn that He works in the midst of those to show us His love , His mercy, and His redeeming power in our lives, sometimes for our own benefit, but sometimes to the benefit of others.  But most amazingly, at least in some sense, we remind ourselves on this day that we are called to an intimate relationship with Him, a relationship in which He sees His Son in us, a relationship where each one of us, through that Son, is invited to think of Him as Daddy.  Just as we rightly marvel at the love that led to the Incarnation, just as we rightly marvel at the wonder and awe of the Resurrection, so this day we should remind ourselves of the love and redeeming power that leads to our eventual eternal communion with the God.

In Christ’s Peace,

Thursday, May 10, 2018

On vines and baptism and discipleship . . . The baptism of JJ!

     I think there is a madness to my method today.  I see the looks.  Some of you are wondering the same thing each morning before we begin.  This Sunday may be one of those Sundays where we are all left wondering it.  And, if you are visiting today, no I did not misspeak.  Others have methods to their madness, but Adventers have a different story about their rector.  Let that sink in for a second.  Now that everyone is laughing a bit, we can turn to the Gospel of John.
     I shared last week that last week’s and this week’s reading from John really form one complete section.  But there is a lot of teaching going on in these 17 verses that it makes sense that it be divided by our lectionary folks.  Nobody really wants to sit through a comprehensive teaching on these verses, outside a Bible study class.  Such is, of course, unfortunate, but understandable.  The great news is that we get to build on the image of last week and relate it to the baptism of JJ this morning.  Now, by way of apology, Emily and Joel, I apologize that this baptism sermon will not be as personal as I like.  You may have a tough time remembering it in the years to come, particularly as JJ grows and causes you to question whether the sacrament “took.”  What?  I had seven kids.  You don’t think Karen and I sometimes wondered what you’ve all thought as parents?  I really thought about working in Hamilton or Les Miserables into this, well, a couple of the songs on forgiveness or redeeming love from those shows, as an acknowledgement of your loves of performance, but then I remembered my “not even fit for the shower” voice.  In saying that, though, I recognize that my sermon ended up being far more personal than I expected.  8 o’clockers reminded me that sermons sometimes convey more than we think they are conveying.  And, even if it ends up not being personal enough, I did stroll today! 
     Last week, for those of you who were not here, we spoke of the image of abiding in the language of vine growers.  We talked last week how vintners, either for purely economic reasons or for flavor or weather reasons, can graft the branches of one kind of grape to the root system of another grape.  Economically, it cuts the ramp up to production by anywhere from 4 to 7 years.  Imagine being a grower of chardonnay and learning your customers have all become fans of pino grigio.  You could be bankrupted if you had to wait 7 years for a switch in grapes to come to fruition.  Flavor wise, the combination of different root stocks and branches can lead to interesting or even desired flavor profiles.  Again, it’s sort of economically driven—vintners want to have a unique grape so that people will pay more for their grapes—but there is also a bit of artistry involved, what we call taste.  In so far as weather is concerned, we have learned that certain combinations are able to thrive in areas in which the grapes are not native.  Root systems that like more temperate climates cannot survive northern latitudes.  I see the nods, people are remembering.  Good.
     I preached on the applications in our lives last week.  Jesus is the Vine.  This teaching, not insignificantly I think, is the last of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John’s Gospel.  You and I and all who claim Him as Lord are the individual branches.  Only by being grafted into Him do we begin to produce fruit that is pleasing to our Father in Heaven, the owner of the vineyard in other Bible stories, both in the Old and the New Testaments.  The Gospel, of course, is His overarching narrative of salvation history.  Our contribution to His story, which is empowered and encouraged by our being grafted into Him, are our words, our actions, our service, our ministries, the very parts of our witness that make us, us.  Everybody with me or reminded now?  Good, I see some nods.
     It’s important that we understand that because I think one of the primary teachings of John in this section is about the nature of baptism.  We are grafted into Jesus by virtue of our baptism.  So, it is good that we remember on this day when we baptize JJ into the Body of Christ, into His Vine, that we remind ourselves that we, too, were grafted in Him!
     John’s teaching also gives us a bit of insight as to the significance of Jesus’ “I am” statement as the Vine and another reason as to why the leaders of Israel would be so interested in having Jesus put to death.  More significantly, Jesus’ teaching on this has wonderful pastoral implications for all who claim to be grafted into His Vine, His disciples, both those in John’s original audience and us!  Just as significantly, I think Jesus teaching gives us, Episcopalian/Anglicans, encouragement that, at our best, we are truly living into what it means to be rooted in His Vine!
     Listen to one of our old prayers for those about to be baptized: Lord Jesus Christ, you desire that everyone who follows You shall be born again by water and the Spirit: Remember Your servant, JJ, who is soon to be baptized in Your Name.  By His name Lord: Grant that you will know him, and call him to a life of service.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may become the person You created him to be.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may be written for ever in Your Book of Life.  Amen.  Through the water of his baptism, Lord: Grant that JJ may be united with You in Your death.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may receive forgiveness for all his sins.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may have power to endure, and strength to have victory in the battle of life.  Amen.  As a member of Your Church, Lord: Grant that JJ may rise to a new life in the fellowship of those who love You.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may suffer when another suffers and when another rejoices, rejoice.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may be Your faithful soldier and servant until his life’s end.  Amen.  Through the abiding presence of Your Spirit, Lord: Grant that JJ may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.  Amen.  Grant that when JJ passes through the dark waters of death, You will be with him.  Amen.  Grant that JJ may inherit the kingdom of glory prepared for him from the foundation of the world.  Amen.
     No doubt you hear the anticipatory echoes of the Baptismal vows we will make regarding JJ and renew regarding ourselves, but I shared that prayer with you because I think it does a wonderful job of explaining John’s teaching these last two weeks.
     In the buildup to the most recent end of the world nonsense, I had a fair number of conversations regarding what it really means to be Christian.  Most conversations were outside these walls, but a few took place here at Advent.  People were concerned about their destination, if the prophesy about April 23 turned out true.  Is being a Christian simply a question of belief and knowledge?  Some apparently have been taught that what signifies them as Christians is simply their willingness to be baptized and proclaim Jesus as Lord.  Is that really all that signifies us as Christians?  Does that even necessarily signify us as Christians?  During a couple conversations I ended up discussing baptized people who seem not to live their lives as people who claim Jesus is Lord.  The easy examples for me to use were members of the mafia.  Pope Francis has found himself criticized a few months ago in some clerical circles for telling members of the mafia that tithing and going to Mass are not enough to believe oneself saved, that there needs to be an amendment of life.  Those complaining, by the way, really like the contributions to their offering plates and budgets.  To us, such a statement seems common sensical, but to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, it seems to fly in the face of their church’s teaching.  All that really matters is the public profession, right? 
     We know, hopefully, less extreme claimants.  There are numerous examples of people who publicly claim Jesus as Lord and yet who live as people who do not seem quite convinced of their own proclamations, though maybe their counter-witness is less egregious than the aforementioned members of the mafia.  I am amazed at the number of drivers with cars with fish or “Jesus saves” bumper stickers on the back that seem to go quickly to the universal sign of respect in Nashville traffic.  I have lots of conversations with folks who like to argue that they do not need to come to church to worship God.  They can worship God just fine on the golf course, in the beds on a cold, rainy day, on the lake while fishing, or headed down to Cool Springs to find great deals and small crowds on Sunday morning.  If they truly worshiped God while doing those things, my guess is that they would not be seeking me out to argue that one must be in community, unless that community has discerned a call for them to a life of mystical communion or hermit/ess.  And for us Episcopalians, it is part of our oath that we make before God when we seek baptism or confirmation: we promise to continue in the Apostles’ fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers!  So is our faith simply in our heads?  No, not exactly, though there is some sort of rational part of our faith.
     Another worry that was expressed to me by those outside the parish was whether they had done enough to merit heaven.  At times over my tenure, though, Adventers have specifically asked me if I thought God would be disappointed with them.  Now, most of you understand that works’ righteousness is rejected by the Church, so will not pound against that too much the morning.  But, how do we measure the transformation of the heart?  Part of our discernment is the fruits we produce, right?  You all laughed about the mafia a moment ago, why?  Extortion, theft, murder, intimidation, and whatever else we associate with their lives thanks to Holly wood are not fruits of the Spirit.  They may intellectually claim to be Christians, but their lives testify to their rejection of His Lordship—that was the lesson being taught by the Pope.  And so, when we look at the fruits of our lives or the lives around us, they give an indication of our relationship with Christ.
     And please, do not mishear me this morning.  We all sin.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  Joel and Emily will soon learn, if Addie has not already taught them, that there is an inherent willfulness, an original propensity to sin, within us.  Every parent knows this.  God knows this.  What does He ask or command of us when we do sin?  That we repent and return to Him.  His Son has already paid the penalty for our sins.  So, our Father who is glorified by our fruit to which He empowers to accomplish in His name is pleased with our humility and willingness to repent.  And even that act of repentance can be used by God to reach others!
     So, if being a Christian is not be a head thing or a work or fruit-producing thing, what is it?  How do we measure it?  How do we assure ourselves, when the enemy whispers in our Gethsemane moments, that we weren’t good enough?  Don’t have the right theology?  Are not loved by our Father in Heaven?  Think back on that prayer and on Jesus’ wonderful I am the Vine statement.  Now, think back to your own confirmation class, and here is your chance to show off for the visitors and friends and family of JJ so they know you are equipped to teach JJ to know and love God and know himself to be known by and loved by God in the years to come.  What is a sacrament?  Come on, this is not rhetorical.  What is a sacrament?  Thank you, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  We are a sacramental people.  We may differ with our Roman and Eastern friends as to the number, but we are still a sacramental people.  What we do today is a dominical sacrament, meaning it was commanded by our Lord that we go and baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  To use our language and illustration better, today, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in accordance with the will and power of the Father and of the Son, JJ is grafted into the Vine, Christ.  If Emily and Joel do their jobs, and we do our jobs, JJ will know Himself to be rooted in the love of Christ.  JJ, like I think almost all of us present, is grafted into the Vine.  He will minister and serve and speak in his own voice in the years to come, but it will be, to extend the metaphor of the last couple weeks, his way of expressing God’s love, God’s story, in the world around him.
     I see some shocked looks.  Heady stuff, right?  JJ and you and I are commissioned to tell God’s story in the world around us.  You and I are commissioned to bear witness to His saving grace in our lives and in the world around us.  Don’t worry, Pentecost is coming; we never do this stuff on our own!  But failure to do it on our parts can have a terrible ripple effect on the lives of those around us.  Failure to do our job winsomely and passionately and lovingly means that others do not get to hear our voice or see our work or, to use the metaphor again, taste of our particular flavor.  Think I’m crazy?  Think I am extending John account of Jesus’ teaching too far?
     Look at the teaching again.  Think back on last week’s teaching.  When is all of this teaching given?  After the events of Maundy Thursday and right before the Passion of our Lord Christ.  Jesus has just changed their understanding of the Passover Meal.  They were celebrating a freedom of bondage from slavery in Egypt, but our Lord alters their thinking to understand, only after the fact, that His purpose was to free them from the bondage of sin.  And here, later in the evening, Jesus goes on this long discussion about vineyards and fruit of the vine.  Why?
     Until this point in salvation history, God’s locus of salvation has always been the territory in the Bible known as the Promised Land.  God’s people, prior to the Incarnation, understood the vineyard to be Israel and themselves to be the vines growing in the vineyard.  At times that vineyard is well-hedged and protected by watch towers; during times of judgment or Exile, that vineyard is laid waste so that people can marvel and laugh at its fall.  Always, though, the Promised Land was the Locus.  To where does Jesus switch it?  Himself!  No longer are God’s people to view themselves as vines in a vineyard; now they are to view themselves as branches connected to the Vine, the Son of God!  This replacement understanding is profound for God’s people, including me and you.
     For a people about to experience the expulsion from the synagogues, the crushing of their homeland by Roman might, persecution at the hands of that same Roman power, what is the pastoral implication?  No longer does the people of God need to fight to get back to somewhere, a Promised Land in time in space.  Wherever they go, they are already connected to the Vine!  If they suffer, they ought not be too surprised, as they are connected to the Vine that suffered and they have a share in His sufferings.  If they are blessed, they should not be too shocked.  As branches in the Vine beloved by the Father, the Vine grower, they are promised a first born inheritance!  Pastorally, this teaching will be significant in the early Church and should be for us today.
     How do you and I remind ourselves of the truth of Jesus teaching?  Where do you and I remind ourselves of Hs work and the joyful thanksgiving we should have toward Him?  The Eucharist!  Each time we gather to celebrate that Sacrament, what do we do?  We remember His death.  We proclaim His Resurrection.  We await His coming in glory.  The Eucharist becomes of us that outward sign that we are grafted into His Vine and heirs of all His promises!  Put in a different language, the Eucharist becomes for us, just like baptism, a mystical experience that reminds us of God’s love for each one and all of us!
     I see some struggling faces.  Are these good struggles or bad struggles?  Unsure?  Fair enough.  In some sense, Emily and Joel’s decision to move JJ’s baptism was fortuitous for this.  One, we get to focus a bit more on what is happening in the sacrament.  But, just as significantly, we are about to make the big switch from the season of Easter into the Season after Pentecost.  In that transition, we will celebrate the Ascension and Pentecost.  The Ascension marks Jesus’ leaving—His ministry on earth is completed.  In a mysterious way, though, He is still with us through the empowering and life –giving Holy Spirit.  As good liturgical Christians living after that big transition, where do we meet Jesus today?  Bingo!  In the Word and Sacraments!
     Hard to take in, right?  The more important question is whether we believe it?  Because whether we accept this profound truth because our head says it makes sense or because the resulting fruit seems evident of the Spirit dwelling in us or because of that mystical experience present in our Sacrament, there is a consequence to that belief.  The consequence, of course, is summed up in those prayers I read earlier and in that commissioning prayer we say together at the end of each and every Eucharist.  Eternal God, heavenly Father, You have graciously accepted us as living members of Your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and You have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  Now what do we pray?  Send us now into the world in peace and grant us strength and courage to love and serve You with gladness and singleness of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  There is a reason we do not pray for an identical theology, an identical ethic, or even an identical mystical experience.  We pray for unity; we pray for charity toward one another; we pray for the strength and courage to do His work; but we recognize that, even though we are part of the Vine, we each are different branches.  We each have a unique relationship to the Vine, to God, and unique callings.  Make no mistake, our stories of redemption are part of His story of redemption, but they are stories told in our voice, spoken in our language, colored by our perspectives, acted out in our servant-ministries, and filled with the joy that His redeeming presence gives us!
     In the end, we might say the fancy word that I have been dancing around this morning is discipleship.  In the baptism of JJ this morning, we are marking the beginning of his discipleship.  In the vows taken by Emily and Joel, they are marking a change in the nature of their discipleship.  No longer are they simply trying to follow Jesus, to abide in His presence, they are undertaking again today the effort and vow to raise another child as a disciple of Christ.  You and I who renew our vows and remind ourselves of our work also make a vow this to help JJ know and love the Lord Jesus as part of our community.  You members of the family that are Christian, you make a similar vow, though its exercise will be different than most of us.  What we should be teaching JJ and reminding ourselves is summed up well in the passage of the last two weeks.  Following Jesus is not just an intellectual exercise.  Following Jesus is not just a question of proper or right behavior.  Following Jesus is, at its root, a mystical experience that transforms us.  When we endeavor to meet Jesus in the Word or in the Sacrament, He is always there waiting and wooing, longing for us to desire His abiding presence.  And for those who seek that presence, brothers and sisters, those who desperately try to root themselves in His Vine, He promises joy, joy that the world cannot give, to use the language of John from Maundy Thursday, the joy that is possible only from knowing ourselves loved by, redeemed by, and rooted in His eternal presence.  And that joy, my brothers and sisters, is the best answer to our Gethsemane moments and our fears and doubts.

In Christ’s Peace,