May 17, 2012 Ascension Thursday
Daniel 7: 9-14; Matthew 28: 16-20
Choral Evensong, Calvary Episcopal Church, East Liberty
Good evening, and may there be grace and peace to you indeed, from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate in this feast as he is enthroned on high, ruling in majesty, and even in a world of brokenness and sin all around us the fulfillment of our prayer, “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
I am absolutely convinced that when the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, it will be the combined choirs of Calvary Church, the Church of the Redeemer, and St. Andrew’s Church that will be engaged to sing that liturgy, and I very much want to thank Alan Lewis and Nathan Carterette and Pete Luley and our three choirs for sharing with us an anticipation and foretaste of that this evening. A gift. And to thank my neighbor and colleague and friend, the Rector of Calvary Church, for inviting me to participate as well this evening. It is always truly an honor to preach in this place, and in this pulpit. One of the great pulpits of our Church. And I would just take this opportunity to say, Harold, as I know this week you have announced plans for your retirement from this ministry later this year, that it has been very much a privilege to serve over these years with you, and sharing the life of our wider East End neighborhood and our diocese. There will be time I’m sure for some reminiscences and testimonials in the fall, but as this announcement has gone out, a word of friendship and great respect, and of all best wishes as you and Claudette begin to chart the next stage of the journey.
Now, whenever I come to this final scene in St. Matthew I am drawn back in memory to a Sunday School class in my childhood, I think maybe in the third or fourth grade. One of those singular moments that stands out and has always remained with me. Our teacher, I believe her name was Mrs. Johnson, told us a story about a missionary in China back before the war who during the day was in a school as a teacher of English and who in the evening led Bible studies and evangelistic services. The story was about one man who participated in those classes for some time, involved both during the day and in the evening, who came to the missionary one day with tears in his eyes, obviously moved in some very deep way, to say that he had been reading his English Bible, and that in what he was reading Jesus had spoken to him personally--personally!--and touched his heart. And the missionary of course wanted to know more about this, and so the man told him it was right here, at the end of Matthew, as he was learning to read in English the words of assurance that Jesus shares with his friends with the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “That is wonderful, Mr. Lo,” said the missionary. “That is wonderful.”
Well, it sounds kind of silly. But our Sunday School teacher had us each take our Bibles—the ones we had received as a gift from the congregation at the end of the Second Grade—and turn to Matthew 28, and with our pencils carefully draw a line through the word “Lo,” and next to it, in the margin, to write our own name. And so, every time I come to Matthew 28, I recall that somewhere, perhaps in a box of books in my sister’s garage out in California, there is an old red Bible in which Jesus says, “Bruce, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus speaking to us personally. Me and Mr. Lo. And we could all do that in our imagination. Jesus looking over the circle of the disciples, across miles and centuries, and seeing you, each one of us. “I am with you, with you, always.” Insert your name here.
It is in any event something of the paradox of Ascension Thursday that the imagery of departure is surrounded and given shape and meaning by the assurance that Jesus isn’t going anywhere. On the contrary, the message is if anything that now in the great conclusion of Good Friday and Easter Morning he is here more than ever. Lifted high upon the throne, ruling in heaven and earth. The great narrative arc of God’s action to redeem and restore a fallen world begun in the word to Abraham in the ancient desert of Mesopotamia, the thread of promise in the life of Israel, the hope of the prophets. The sacramental anticipation of Israel, God’s holy people, set apart, and the Tent in the Wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem, now perfected in the New Israel of Christ, in the Temple of his glorified Body. And in the Temple of his glorified Body, that is his Church. Insert your name here. A light to lighten the gentiles. The glory of thy people.
And so this evening we might hear appropriately in the background the 21st Chapter of St. John’s Revelation: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” And of course the wonderful vision of Daniel in the reading appointed for this evening, “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away.”
Ascension Thursday, again. And Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere, isn’t going anywhere. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The story of Matthew 28, like the Ascension story of Luke 24, is not about a departure, but about an arrival, about his installation, his institution, his enthronement, his authority, his new kingdom. It’s about who we are now, what we become, as we see him for the first time for who he truly is. King of kings, Lord of lords. He shall reign for ever and ever. And the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even forever.
Not about the departure of Jesus, but about who we are now with him, in him. Standing at the new doorway of Pentecost, Holy Spirit, and this Great Commission.
Earlier this spring here at Calvary Church in our Lenten Preaching Series our good friend Moni McIntyre shared this really exciting sermon with us, as perhaps many of you will remember. Always of course with her great energy and directness of expression and good humor. Honestly, I don’t remember the text she was preaching on that evening. But I do remember that we were with all our Lenten Preachers reflecting together this spring on who we are now particularly as a diocesan family and expression of Christ’s Church, about the future we are being called to, and on the spirit of life and leadership that would be required of us, as we had before us the occasion of the election of our next bishop. About being Salt, about sharing and reflecting the Light of the World, now shining above us and among us.
We are of course mindful of all kinds of challenges. Diminished numbers, precarious resources, a certain tenderness in the body, perhaps more than a few bruises and sore places, remnants of old divisions not quite healed. In moments like that it is perhaps understandable that any of us might be drawn in the direction of stepping out of the fray, to a turning inward. But that’s not what Moni was going to say for us in her sermon, but instead with all her energy and enthusiasm and great commitment to say, “Let’s get going!” No time like the present, this day, this hour. It’s all about Holy Spirit and Pentecost now. And we can remember that mid-Lent sermon as we go out this Ascension evening. What is there to wait for? I remember when I was in college back in the early 1970’s I saw someone reading a magazine called “Acts 29.” And I was curious, so I went home and picked up my Bible to turn to Acts 29, only to discover that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles ends with Chapter 28. And then, of course, the lightbulb flashed on, and my understanding was illumined. That’s our chapter. The substance of let’s say the 29th Chapter of St. Matthew too. Go forth, go forth today, into all nations, among all peoples. Let that be our story. To begin right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and not to be bashful about it--to share the good news, to be ministers of the great sacrament of renewal and rebirth, to teach and lead and inspire both in our words and by our striving to live an obedient and holy life every graceful word and commandment that he has shared with us.
Ascension Thursday, but he isn’t going anywhere. He is seated here and now at the right hand of the Father. Over us, over our Church and our world. His is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is his. His is the kingdom, and he is exalted as head before all.