Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Power of Breath, the Power of Love: Sermon for Pentecost A

As I consider these readings the first thing that strikes me is the statement in the first verse of our first reading that the disciples were all gathered together in one place. Since March 16, we have not been able to do that. This Sunday, May 31, marks the end of the initial order from the diocese to cease in-person worship, and it doesn’t look as though we are able to resume that any time soon. As of May 30, 2020, more than 105,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with 1.8 million confirmed cases, and we all know that the real numbers of both are undoubtedly much higher, given the lack of testing we still have in this country. Who know when we will be able to be gathered together in one place again?

We too, some of us, have been huddled behind locked doors. Others of us have locked away their hearts and closed themselves to compassion, recklessly disregarding pleas for social distancing and mask wearing, endangering each other and workers without considering consequences and the care we owe each other in the name of decency and honor. They do not realize that they have locked themselves away as much as any prisoner kept in chains in a dungeon deep. They have clenched their hearts like fists against the power depicted in our readings today—a power we celebrate today, celebrate so that we can instead open our hearts to it, break our hearts open to it—the power of love. 

Jesus’s ministry and teaching during his earthly ministry was centered on love, reconciliation, renewal. On feeding and healing those who were hungry and hurting in body and in spirit. On rescuing the lost, the outcast, the oppressed and restoring them to a place of hope, of dignity, of full membership in the community. Each and every miracle and encounter we see with Jesus recounted in scripture calls us to consider the ways in which God has likewise been present to us in our own lives, to respond with gratitude, and then to embody that same generosity, charity, and love in action out into a world that groans under suffering and domination just as much now as it did 2000 years ago. 

And yet Jesus does not leave us without his presence or other resources. Jesus reminds us that the power to follow in his ministry as his disciples is given to us in our very breath. I am convinced it is vitally important for us to lay our passage from Acts and our passage from John alongside each other, with our psalm reading as the hinge. In John, we hear that familiar story of the disciples in the room, afraid of the forces outside of it that might be coming to get them, the same forces that seized hold of Jesus and crucified him. And make no mistake. It wasn’t the “Jews” who killed Jesus. It was the death-dealing power of empire, and those who were willing to go along with it, making a so-called “bargain with the devil” in order to maintain their own places of influence, wealth, and power, that killed Jesus. Indeed, those forces are still are at work right now, working to usurp Jesus’ message of hope and peace and replace it with one of division, hatred, and fear.

That’s why Jesus’s final gift to his disciples that we hear recounted today is so important for us to hear anew. The final gift to us is the breath of God. A gift that was implanted in us in the very beginning of creation, as Psalm 104 reminds us, created as God sends forth the Holy Spirit like a wind or breath to move over chaos and draw forth from it new life and new growth. That breath is the foundation of life itself, a gift given to each of us that also calls us to seek to live in wisdom, compassion, and peace with each other. Not by participating in the oppressions of this world, but by embodying and embracing the power of life and love over the forces that preach hate, contempt, and death. What a precious message of renewal, so desperately needed in this time and in this place! 

 That breath of God, given to us in double portion when we invite the Spirit of God to reside within our hearts, calls us to reject any power that would deprive another of breath, whether by exploiting them for their labor or by kneeling upon their necks to drive the breath from their helpless bodies. 

We already have too much of violence in our lives. So I think it’s important to remember that although the SOUND of the Spirit in Acts is described as sounding like a violent wind, the image from our gospel tempers that, and reminds us that the gift of the Spirit of God comes gently. It comes to make us brave, to make us hopeful, to make us powerful through love.

Growing up in Tornado Alley in Oklahoma, I know what a violent wind is like. Perhaps it is fears of being seized by a violent wind that leads so many of us Christians to want to hold the Holy Spirit at arm’s length. So we are called to understand that the Holy Spirit only goes where she is welcomed. The Spirit of God’s means of working are collaborative, as we see in our epistle, requiring assent, just as Mary assented to God’s call to her at the Annunciation. The Spirit seeks to break us open, yes, but through love, where we have closed ourselves off from the hope and possibility of the good things God offers to us, and our own human frailty and sinfulness keeps us from working toward and embracing.

The Spirit does not storm into our lives, upending our own agency but comes alongside us, gentle as a breath, to speak words of healing into the well of pain that twists and disfigures our world by our silences and our closing ourselves off to each other. The Spirit calls to us lovingly, gently, to realize the power of love, hope, healing that we can all contribute to, that is our lasting inheritance as Jesus calls us to share in his incredible work of blessing and reconciliation. That breath to us of our ability to be his Body in the world and to continue his ministry.

The events we hear recounted in our readings today remind us that as long as we center ourselves in love and faithfulness to God and to each other, nothing can separate us from each other. Indeed, the Spirit’s greatest deed of power in our readings today is her power to break through any barrier that we humans can erect—those of ethnicity, class, or language. And through language that the Spirit enables the witness of the disciples to the crowd outside their room. 

Once the disciples accept that gift of breath, that gift of Spirit, what do they do with it? They go out and proclaim. They go out and tell out the joyous story of God’s reaching out to us to reclaim us and draw us into relationship with the Creator of the universe. Their discipleship moves from learning to themselves proclaiming the message Jesus had imparted to them. They go out to share the peace of Christ for the transformation of the world. Many of us marvel at the idea of the gift of being able to speak in all the different languages of the onlookers in the streets of Jerusalem gathered for the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Very often, churches who have been gathered together on this feast have invited members of the congregation who have the ability to speak parts of the passage in other languages, and we have heard parts of this passage spoken in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Tagalog, Japanese, Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, Swahili. Yet the true miracle lies deeper—through the power of the Holy Spirit, each person felt heard by God, and by the strangers who poured out of that room. 

The gift of language is irretrievably tied up in our identities. I have spent the last 2 weeks watching my mother struggle to both express herself and understand what is going on around her due to damage to the parts of her brain that control speech and language. Her first three days post-stroke, the only sentence she really had mastery of was “I’m mad.” And the doctors and nurses were usually unfortunately too rushed to spend the time to try to understand what my mother was trying to say, or to consider that she didn’t understand what they were saying most of the time. So the two sides were at an impasse. After a week, she started talking in longer sentences, and talked about memories rather easily. Yet if someone asked her a direct question, she struggled, and often found herself saying her other favorite sentence: “No.”

Yet I am reminded that at the root of the gift of language is the gift of breath. As disciples, Pentecost reminds us to use our breath not to promote the hatred and contempt that power this world of our. We are called to use our breath, our precious breath, to sing out God’s message of love, of hope, of community, of being joined together by our common origin. We are to use our breath not to condemn the oppressed but to declare our unity and our love regardless of the categories that could be used to divide us.

As the events of the last week have proven, we are divided by language in this country. It’s not a division based on lack of fluency. It’s a division fueled by lack of care and concern for the welfare of others. When someone who is sworn to protect and to serve the citizens of his community callously ignores pleas like “I can’t breathe.” When we fail to take seriously the divide in the justice system that excuses and accepts the killing of a suspect over $20, but at the same time insists that his killer deserves the protection of due process in abundance, we are not speaking the same language when we talk about justice or the sanctity of life. When we close our eyes to oppressions and micro-aggressions suffered daily by our neighbors, when we deny our kinship with each other and dehumanize each other, speaking the same language doesn’t seem to matter much.

At the root of that gift of breath, and at the root of that gift of language, lies our charge to use our lives in service to God, by using our own breath to testify to God’s power to redeem and repair the world. We are called to protect the ability of our fellow human beings to breathe, whether that ability to breathe is threatened by violence, racism, poverty, and injustice, or by COVID-19. 

The breath of the Spirit implanted in us is the breath of love, a word we are too quick to discount or limit to romance. Perhaps it might help us to think of it as a powerful wind, after all.

The Spirit not only blesses us with the gift and responsibility of taking the language of love that animates our very existence as God’s children and translating that love into action in defense of the defenseless. The Spirit gives the listeners, those to whom we are called to minister and stand alongside, the assurance that they are heard and understood—that God calls us to speak and hear in the language of love, compassion, mercy, and grace. To be able to reach into the depths of every person, to cherish their most basic identity as a child of God created in God’s image, no matter what their circumstance, and be willing to lay our lives alongside theirs in recognition that we are all beloved, that no one is beyond redemption, that no one has forfeited the claim we all have to life, dignity, and hope. 

Our message, powered by that gift of breath, is one of healing, of unity, and, ultimately of peace. Not peace as the absence of tension, that ignores the plight of the hurting in order for us just to “get along.” God did not send Jesus into the world to protect the status quo or to urge our surrender to the principalities of this world. Jesus’ peace is founded on love in action that is the foundation of our very existence. 

May we use the gift of our breath, the gift of our love, to welcome the Spirit into our lives, for the life of the world and protection of our neighbors.


Preached at the 10:30 online service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville on the Day of Pentecost, May 31, 2020.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Prayer, day 2682: The Day of Pentecost

Come, Holy Spirit,
and renew our hearts and our mind
that we may be animated
to bear the holy fire of joy and faithfulness into the world. 

May we be united to one another and to Christ

as one body,
to set our entire beings upon worshipping and serving our God. 
May we be filled with holy forbearance and peace,

inspired by love to tend to Christ
in the least of those we meet. 
May goodness and gentleness take root in our hearts,

breaking us open to new life in Christ our Savior and his Gospel. 

Come, Holy Spirit, we pray,

and spread your sheltering wings over those who call upon You.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Prayer, day 2681: Standing for Right

God of Abundance,
we raise our hearts to You in praise,
and ask your Spirit to guide us in wisdom and love.

Help us, O God,
to be rigorous in judging ourselves,
and gracious in judging others,
remembering the repeated forgiveness which upholds us.

Even when we cannot think alike,
help us to love alike, Blessed Savior,
making us of one heart
even if not of one opinion.

Rather, let us love one another fully,
embracing all who seek You, O Holy One,
by doing all the good we can,
by all the means we can,
in all the ways we can,
in all the places we can,
at all the times we can,
to all the people we can,
as long as ever we can.

Spirit of Love, set us ablaze with a holy fire,
and fill us with courage
to witness to the power of God's love in our lives,
as we ask your blessing upon these beloveds.


Friday, May 29, 2020

Prayer, day 2680

Holy One,
I lift my heart before You
and amplify the proclamation of your glory.

May I proclaim your greatness, O God,
from the depths of my soul
with a shout of joy and victory.
May I give thanks, Lord,
for your manifold blessings and great mercy
that maintain my life and my spirit.

Your love, O Almighty One, forever will I sing
joining the chorus of generations in praise.
May I walk in paths of justice and mercy
that my life may testify to the power of the Holy One.

For You, O Sustainer,
call us to stand alongside the oppressed
and fill the hungry with good things.
You, O Mighty One,
cast down the oppressor
and scatter the schemes of the powerful.
You, O Savior,
have lifted up the humble
and exalted the ordinary,
but chasten the tyrants
and call them to justice.

Your promises are our foundation and hope, O God:
we appeal to You in trust and faith as we pray.


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Prayer, day 2679

Place a new song in our mouths and our hearts, O Lord:
let us sing our praises from the deeps of our souls.
Give us a joy in doing your will:
to act justly,
to love mercy,
and walk humbly with You in love, O God.
You have lifted us out of the pit we ourselves have dug;
You have delivered us to abide in your light.
Take us by the hand and lead us for joy;
may your healing radiance shine through us.
Knit us together in justice, reconciliation, and peace,
loving each other as ourselves.

Spirit of Peace,
spread the wings of your redemption and grace
over all who call upon You as we pray.


Miraculous in Wisdom: Speaking to the Soul, May 28, 2020

The last ten days I have been back in my hometown, caring for my mother who has suffered a stroke. I’ve been working with my sister to get her medical care and to clean, update, and prepare her house for her release from rehab, doing all within our power to keep her out of a nursing home or assisted living. One of the things we had to do was go through old photographs and assorted detritus from our childhoods. Born in the 60s, I am a child of the 80s, and there have been many fashion experiments that we have discovered in old photographs that have brought fits of laughter in the midst of our anxiety and exhaustion.

I found a box out in the garage of a lot of my college stuff—posters of Magnum PI and the Beatles, a calligraphy print of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, old notebooks, and cassette tapes. When I was in college Christian pop and rock had just become a big deal. Although I didn’t listen to a lot of that type of music (my tastes ran more toward classical, new wave, and indie artists), I did like Amy Grant, and she did a lovely, simple song based upon Psalm 104’s celebration of creation. It’s a simple song: the sound of night insects, then a legato guitar arpeggio, and then the simply sung lyrics and melody, straight from our portion of Psalm 104 we will hear on the Day of Pentecost. You can listen to it on YouTube. Each layer of sound is reminiscent of the steps and stages of creation, from simple to more complex.

One of my favorite lines of this section of Psalm 104 is “In wisdom you have made them all.” When I was a kid, sitting in science class and learning about the amazing diversity of life was a religious experience for me. There are creatures that live in extreme cold, extreme darkness, extreme heat. There are giant amoebas called xenophyophores that live six and a half miles below the surface of the Pacific. There are bacteria that eat oil that have developed in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a species of walking stick insect in Borneo that grows to over a foot long.  There’s the Venus Flytrap. There’s the seahorse. There’s the platypus. There’s the sea urchin. There’s a plant called “dancing grass” that visibly moves in response to sound.

The psalm celebrates the splendor and order of creation and the absolute generosity and sufficiency of all the works of God. Once again, as in Psalms 8 and 9, we are reminded that all that we have and all that we are are gifts from God. In this reading, we see mountains being turned into something insubstantial by the power of God—this time they smoke. God is the seat of ultimate power-- but that power is used for blessing far more than for curse. There are abundant images of plenty- use of words like “manifold,” “all,” “full,” “great,” “wide,” innumerable,” “filled,” “endure forever.” All of the images but one remind us of gifts. The one reminder that this generosity is in itself something that we enjoy but do not earn is found in v. 29: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.” Our time on earth is short in our sight but is nonetheless a gift.

The first 24 verses of this psalm retells the story of creation from Genesis, but we get the SparkNotes version here. The order in verses 25-29 echoes Genesis --as well as evolutionary theory (I’ve always felt that the laws of physics are some of the most amazing miracles and signs of God’s love for us). First there is the sea, full of life, then come crawling things out of the water and onto the land, and some things become great. I have always thought of the Leviathan as a dinosaur-like creature, so that’s the image I get there, as well. And then there is the mention of the breath of life as in Genesis 2. The sea here is represented as a place of creation, which is different than how it is often depicted elsewhere in scripture, as a place of chaos, disorder, and storms.

I have heard people claim that they don’t believe in miracles. And yet, they are all around us: the blaze of a rainbow against a dark prairie sky after a thunderstorm of percussive force. The firing of synapses, electric impulses timed just right, as a baby stands upright and toddles her first few steps. The frilled beauty of wildflowers, so easily discounted, but greater in loveliness than Solomon in all his glory. And this week, watching my mother relearn words and go from simple demands to sentences and paragraphs and names, finding creative ways including drawing and metaphor to attempt to get around the roadblocks the injury to her brain has created. In the same seven days that reminds us of the breadth and beauty of creation, my mother has been recreating her connection with language and speech, facing her long recovery with realism but also with hope, faith, and perseverance. I know that her deep faith informs it all, for my mother’s relationship with God has not been shaken one bit. These small but consequential miracles remind me of God’s ongoing creation and care for us, granting us comfort and peace in the face of struggle and trial. The works of God are indeed without number, and the grace of God undergirds each miraculous moment.

O Lord, how many are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all!

This was first published at the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on May 28, 2020.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Prayer, day 2678: for strength

O God of Hope,
accept our prayers and praises
as we lay them before You in morning's light.

Our times are in your hand, O Creator,
and our trust is in You
as we navigate the pathways of life.
With your benevolent help, Lord Jesus,
teach us to walk the good road,
and reconcile us to each other.
Make us humble,
aware of our own manifold faults,
especially our seeking advantage over each other,

rather than rejoicing in the bonds of love and mercy.
Pour out your peace and grace
like oil upon the turbulent waters,
that we may be unified by love.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
renew our hearts and minds in holiness
and bless and keep those we remember before You.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Prayer 2677

We raise our hearts before You,
O God Our Rock,
who births creation into being,
who calls us to renewal and repentance.

May we walk in integrity, loving-kindness, and charity
before our God and Savior,
the One Who Sees all our works,
the Supporter of the Fallen who calls us to compassion.

Beloved Savior, Blessed Jesus,
guide us into your way and truth,
and protect those who do what is right
even in the face of corruption and evil.

Strengthened in love and upheld in wisdom,
may we use this day to your glory
and the comfort of the suffering around us,
O Spirit of the Living God.

Bestower of Faith, bless us this day,
and extend the awning of your mercy,
we humbly pray,
over those for we lift before You.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Prayer 2676: For Memorial Day

Most Merciful God,
we worship You and give You thanks,
delighting in the blooming proof of Your love
in fields alight with wildflower
and in loving hearts that share our burdens.

Your gracious hand sustains us and shelters us;
Your sheltering wing draws us near and shields us.
Your love forever will we sing and share.

Grant us wisdom and empathy
to make each other's wellbeing our duty,
to use our freedom for the defense of others
as did those gallant dead who offered their all
in defeating tyranny, racism, and hatred.

May we be worthy to honor their memory
by purifying our hearts,
taking up the cause they leave to us to finish.

In their memory, O God,
strengthen us in truth,
and make us noble, self-sacrificing, and brave,
a people who stand for peace
founded upon compassion and hope.

Holy One, fill us with a Spirit of Integrity and Faith;
bless us with wisdom and discernment
to do what is right for the most vulnerable.
Send your angels
to comfort those who remember and mourn,
and grant your blessing to those we now name.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Essential Church: Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension, year A

One of the things I do to prepare for worship each week is spend the week in conversation with our texts for the following Sunday. Early in the week, I normally begin to look at artwork, listen to music, and read poetry that touches upon the upcoming readings. Over the years I have gathered quite a collection of these items.

One of my favorite, strangest images I have for the Feast of the Ascension is one a friend of mine shared from a shrine on the east coast of England in Norfolk. The backstory to the image is this. In 1061, a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a local nobleman, and a shrine was soon built there, and became a major pilgrimage site in all of Europe. After Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the shrine was demolished, but was later restored when the Anglo-Catholic movement was launched within the Church of England in the 19th century, Anglican veneration of Mary became popular again. In the 1920s, the Anglican priest who oversaw the Anglican parish in the town built an Anglican shrine to Mary and included a chapel devoted to the Ascension of our Lord.

Rather than depict the scene with a painting or a statue, on the ceiling over the altar there is a gilded piece of art that depicts two pierces feet and the hem of a golden robe ascending into the clouds overhead. This depiction is certainly unique. For as often as it makes me laugh, this sculpture also comforts me. It’s a reminder of the fact that Jesus is still with us, even after the Ascension, just not always in a way we might expect. 

It’s a funny thing that the ascension of Jesus gets little descriptive mention in the gospels—and in fact the best description we have is in the Acts of the Apostles, believed to have been written by the same person who wrote Luke’s gospel. As you recall, Luke and Acts work together as a whole, and they are both believed to have been written by the same author, whom we will call Luke. Although Easter lasts 50 days, there is a notable event at day 40—the Ascension of the Lord. It is traditionally observed on a Thursday; this year, that was May 21, even though the celebration of this event is usually moved to the following Sunday as we are doing. Then ten days after that Thursday, next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, which has two overlapping events associated with it as we see in Acts: first, it is the Jewish Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot, a harvest festival, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples as foretold in our reading today.

After 40 days of explaining to the disciples, of them hearing Jesus constantly reminding them that he is leaving them but comforting them with the promise of the Holy Spirit, the disciples still have questions—kind of like an audience that keeps calling for encores to keep the concert going just a little longer. Jesus has spent an additional 40 days after his resurrection explaining to the disciples what is essential. And once again, the disciples miss, spectacularly, understanding what that means. Just like we do all these years later.

The thing they ask him-- again-- is whether he is going to finally re-establish the independent monarchy to this tiny country groaning under the burden of yet another occupying army. They try to turn Jesus into a partisan hack. Even after all this time, they cannot resist trying to get Jesus to be the warrior king they had been waiting for, asking him to restore the monarchy to Israel. The oppression that Israel has endured throughout most of its history—save for the brief moment of the reigns of David and his son Solomon, frankly—is something they always believed would be ended with the coming of the Messiah.

Yet forgotten within the request for a king is the particularity of the request. When Israel first asked for a king, their prophet warned them that the only king and allegiance they needed was God, and that in choosing a human king, they were choosing to be oppressed by a strong man rather than be led by God into true freedom and equality. Yet they insisted—and it didn’t turn out too well. If you read between the lines, you see that even by Solomon’s reign, for all his supposed glory and wisdom, the people were being deprived of the right to their own labor as the king sought ever grander wars and palaces to showcase his own vanity.

The other problem with making Jesus a national king is that they are still passively waiting for Jesus to do things rather than understand that Jesus is calling them to their work as disciples. Once again, Jesus has to remind them that there is something more important that they will be empowered to do: to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and then BUILD the kingdom of God by “being my witnesses… to the ends of the earth”. They are not to wait for God to transform the world. THEY are God’s hands to transform the world. The disciples are given the power. The disciples will have the ability to utilize that power and will need to be willing to take risks to fulfill that commission.

And we are the disciples today, as member of Christ’s body in the world- the Church. As the Church, Christ is with us and we are in Christ, as we were reminded last week in our gospel reading. They are reminded by two angelic figures not to stand around all day gawking but to get to it (a literal paraphrase of v.11). This is our essential nature as the Church. It is our charge and reason for existence. Not worship for our own sakes. But discipleship and action for the sake of the world. 

Jesus’s response to them reminds them that he is the Savior of the entire world, not just for Israel. Disciples of Jesus are called to let go of trying to make a God a tiny, nationalistic God. Instead, they—and we—are called to our own work, making disciples of every nation not through force of arms but through force of faith, hope, charity, and love, bearing witness through the power of being a Spirit-filled people. When Jesus ascends, he breaks free of nationalist expectations. When he ascends, the disciples are then empowered to carry his message to Israel and beyond.

Jesus doesn’t sit at the right hand of God as the representative of one nation. The incarnation is meant to remind us that these human-made boundaries only serve to divide us. It is an important reminder to us, especially on this Memorial Day weekend that aggressions against these human-made boundaries, and the jealousies, oppressions, and tyrannies they encourage, and especially the wars they foster, unfortunately lead to death and destruction.

The Lord of Life is not the property of any one nation or people, but is a universal Savior one who gathers all the nations of the world not through force of arms or conquest but through love, compassion, and wisdom—to an ethos of sharing rather than hoarding. The reign of Israel is restored through Jesus via their gift of the Messiah to the world, but not as a conquering king riding at the head of armies or empires. The kingdom of God is never directed at granting an advantage to any one people or nation. Attempting to make God a national symbol—or worse, setting God lower in our hearts than divisions we make for ourselves in terms of our devotion. As Calvin noted, Jesus reigns over all creation, to overcome both the distance between us and God and between each other.

As the disciples watch Jesus ascending, we see a parallel scene from Easter morning. Then too, in Luke’s retelling, two angels in dazzling white appeared, and asked the disciples gathered why they are looking in the wrong direction for the wrong thing. Jesus is not simply to be gazed at and adored. They are not to stand there dreading his absence, but look amongst each other and see Jesus in each and every face they see—to see Jesus everywhere. Not just among the “good” or the “righteous,” but among the lost, the forsaken, and the fallen as well.

The repeating of this symbolism reminds us of the hope of Easter enduring. Even after Jesus’ embodied time on earth ends, his embodiment continues, uniting us with God as much as we are united with each other, loving as God calls us to love, without barriers of the heart. And in this time of pandemic, the only barriers God calls us to maintain are those of the masks we wear to protect those around us, to the barrier of self-control and love of other that puts limits on our own selfishness and use of others as tools for our own petty wants and desires.

The early disciples had no desire to start an institution like the Church. They wouldn’t have started one, either, if they had continued to stand around, mouths agape, staring up into the glory of heaven revealed as Jesus ascends. And indeed, the early disciples after the ascension were certain that Jesus was going to be back within their lifetimes—you see that hope reflected in the earliest Christian writing we do have from St. Paul. That’s probably why they didn’t bother writing down any of their first-hand accounts of Jesus in any formal way. The four gospel accounts that were selected for the biblical canon, plus the book of Acts written by the same person who wrote what we call Luke’s gospel, were written by necessity as the generation of witnesses passed away.

And even today, we get people who believe that there are things that THEY can do to cause the second coming of Jesus. And yet, the reign of God was inaugurated by Jesus’s coming to earth and taking on human flesh calls for us to cast aside our support for anyone who calls us to do things that would hurt others, even as accidental casualties.

Jesus is not a possession or a talisman. We who claim Jesus as our Savior cannot clasp him only to ourselves as a personal possession any more than we can hold water in our hands. Just like love, we only get more Jesus by sharing his good news and his invitation to wholeness with others.

There’s been a lot of talk about “the Church” in the news, especially this week, as some of our political leaders have been weighing in on whether worship services in person should resume immediately. And so, it got me to thinking about how we were going to conduct worship this week, while I am down here in Tulsa with my family caring for my mom after her stroke last week. I haven’t been able to be outside much, and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves that worship doesn’t only take place in buildings.

And what a blessing that is—even in this time of COVID-19, we are forcefully reminded that we can worship across distances and that without walls, our worship but more importantly our witness is seen by hundreds of people who would not have come through our doors previously.

I steadfastly agree that churches are essential. The most essential way for the church to exist is as people devoted to action, not to see ourselves as walled away in buildings. What’s essential is using the reason and science and wisdom God has implanted within us to have faith enough in God to know that God is wherever we are gathered in love and charity, no matter how we do that.

But this is also a good time to remind ourselves that worship is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. I am convinced it is impossible to “close” the Church. We are not called to just stand around looking up to heaven. It’s so alluring, I know, to want to look to heaven to solve all of our problems. Jesus’ ascension is NOT about Jesus abandoning us to go back to heaven. Our readings remind us that God is right here, within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The story told in Acts is meant to build up our courage so that we may joyfully take up the mission he loves us enough to entrust to us: to take up our call not as observers but as disciples; to actively proclaim Jesus’s gospel of love and reconciliation in the world.

It’s about hearing that question directed at us: "Why are you standing there, looking up at heaven?" This is a question posed in love and in encouragement. With Jesus’s ascension, WE are Christ’s Body in the world. It is up to us to literally embody Jesus’s gospel in our lives, our attitudes, our words, and our actions. And that means not endangering each other—and the untold people with whom we come in contact with—by ending our fast from in person worship at this time.

Faith that discounts love and concern for others is no faith at all, as we discussed last week. Being a Christian is NOT a spectator sport. Being a Christian calls us to not only transform OUR own lives, but to make visible to the world the possibility of its transformation and restoration. Now more than ever this is so needed. Being a faithful disciple is a social and political act, and act of hope, bravery, and enduring willingness to see the potential and the beauty within this Earth and within every inhabitant of it. That’s the work of the Church. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, it cannot be contained within four walls.


Preached from The Gathering Place in Tulsa for the 10:30 am worship from DSt. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, on May 24, 2020.

Acts 1:1-11 
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

Prayer, day 2675: For Ascension Sunday, and the blessing of the earth

Creator God,
who laid the foundations of the earth,
and filled the sky with light both by day and by night,
we ask that you bless us this day.

Bless the fields,
that they may thrum with the song of the diligent bees,
who help make our harvests bountiful.

Bless the skies, dappled with dawn,
that they may bring forth sunshine and rain in good measure,
sustaining the tender plants as they burgeon and bud.

Bless our toil
as we offer it up for the sustenance of your people,
that we may gratefully care for the earth
and for each other.
Enclose us within your bounds, O God,
and call us safely into your fold,
especially those we now name.