Monday, May 9, 2016

Seventh Easter Sunday, in Ascensiontide

Acts 16

The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice, let the multitude of the isles be glad.  (Psalm 97)

Good morning, and grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ especially on this Sunday--who was born for us as a gracious gift in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, though we neither expected nor deserved him.  Who lived among us, who called us to attention, who invited us to turn our lives around and to follow him in holiness and righteousness, in compassion and mercy, according to God’s Word.  Who in love went up willingly to the Cross in our place, to bear the weight and consequence of our sin.  Though we neither expected nor deserved it.  Though we neither expected nor deserved him.  Who rose from the dead on the Third Day in triumphant victory over the power of the enemy.  Who was exalted in his resurrection body into heaven in perfect communion with the Father.  Who will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

The great season of Easter comes to its conclusion in a 10 day fireworks and all-the-stops-out celebration of The Ascension. (And what a wonderful service we had here at St. Andrew’s this past week on the evening of Ascension Thursday, with our St. Andrew’s Choir and along with them the choir of our neighbors at Calvary Church, and with mycolleague T.J. Freeman’s fine sermon.)  Of course we here will always turn our eyes in the season of The Ascension to the lovely Clara Miller Burd window in the North Transept. 

It’s a new world now, as the story that began in the quiet night of the Holy Stable in the backstreets of Royal David’s City now becomes for us a bright and full light shining from shore to shore and to every corner of the universe. Though we neither expected or deserved any of this.      God has gone up with a triumphant shout.  This is the pivot, the gateway, as the earthly ministry of Jesus is completed and as his Spirit-filled Body the Church moves toward center stage, with Whitsunday and Pentecost ready to launch.

We are his witnesses.  His servants.  Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life—this new citizenship.  Our passports issued and stamped.  To be in our hearts and minds and our lives still entirely planted in this old world as it is passing away and yet at the same time, in this same time, for us this morning, to be already fixed forever in the life of the world to come.  Singing our hymns this morning with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence that we are already in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Almighty Father and in the presence of the Lamb.

I’ve been talking in various ways about “Christian Stewardship” over these weeks of Easter season, and as the season nears its end I would want to say here this morning that the simplest definition of the term is something like this: Stewardship is “to live now here as though we were already there.”  Which is the heart and key message of the Ascension.   We are already there, incorporated into the Body of Christ, that Body that has processed to the Kingdom of the Father.  To live now here, as though we were already there.  To make our lives here and now visible signs of the kingdom.  Not that in this world we can ever do that perfectly, but to have that desire and longing and that spirit and that character as our defining characteristic.  If you want to see what Christ’s Kingdom is, just look: look at his church, look at his people.  Not as completed and perfected examples, for sure, but as they are in love and charity, with renewed praise and joyful obedience, moving forward with intentionality day by day, as his church, and each of those who would go by the name Christian.  On their way to becoming the kind of people they truly are and will be in the Kingdom.  Christian stewardship:  what happens in our lives when we are desiring with all our hearts and striving with all our will to respond to his upward call.

How we treat our bodies and how we use our bodies, as signs of the resurrection.  How we cultivate our thoughts, our intellect.  How we conduct our relationships, marriage and family, at home, at work, in the neighborhood, how we raise our kids, (on this Mother’s Day) how we treat our parents, how we spend our money, how we care for our friends, how we talk about and treat our enemies, how we are good custodians of the planet.  What we post on Facebook, for that matter.   How we talk about others when they aren’t in the room.   How we relate to the people who work with us, for us, or for whom we work.  Big ways and small ways.  As signs of his resurrection.  You and me.    It’s all about the sacramentality of converted life in Christ.  Water in baptism, Bread and Wine in the meal of remembrance.  Ourselves, our souls and bodies.  This St. Andrew’s Church.  The place, the people.  Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  Rooted in the soil of faith, nourished by the Word, given shape and direction by the Holy Spirit.  Like Paul and Silas in Philippi,  in the reading from Acts this morning.  The perfect is still to come, but to know the gift of our citizenship in that heavenly country today, this morning.  To live already, on this side, as we will live in him.

The spirit-possessed slave girl of Phillipi sees something in an instant in Paul and Silas.  As she sees the Apostles  walk through the streets first on their way to the place of prayer down by the river.  The girl follows them through the city day after day shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”   Maybe there is something supernatural in her discernment. Or maybe she’s just watching them and listening to them with open eyes and ears.  In her bondage, she is yearning for a savior.  Yearning to be freed from her slave-owning masters, even more, yearning to be cleansed and healed and delivered from the power of the Evil One. And something really catches her attention about Paul and Silas.  Their preaching and teaching, or maybe something more.  The point of this episode is that even the enemies of Christ can see in an instant when he has entered the room.   Especially his enemies.    The whole thing causes a disturbance, and Paul and Silas are arrested.  Which kind of reminds me of the old saying, “if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  

In any event, our reading this morning moves on with the story of Paul and Silas, and their night in the Phillipi jail.  The jailer nods off at his desk listening to these crazy guys in their cell singing hymns and sharing prayers deep into the night--fearless, joyful even.  He probably figures they’re crazy.  Certainly they don’t realize the kind of trouble they’re in.  But when he wakes up later with a start and sees the doors of the jail wide open, the tables are turned.  Now he sees his whole life pass before his eyes.   His career is over for sure.  All his life plans.  His reputation destroyed, his name marked by catastrophic failure and shame.  Ruin for his family.  And not to mention the likely criminal consequences.  Sleeping on duty.  Negligence.  In the Roman system if a prisoner escaped, his guard would be required to take his place, whatever the sentence may have been. He decides in that moment of overwhelming despair to end it all--like one of those stockbrokers on Black Friday in 1929 who just couldn’t face what was coming. 

But then this amazing reversal, amazing as the prisoners come to him, call out to him before he can end it all.  Stop!  Put the sword down!  These crazy hymn singing praying out loud disturbing the peace fanatics.  They give his life back to him.  They could have had their freedom.  But at what cost?  It appears they never even considered leaving him.  His eyes open wide, his life is restored to him as quickly as he had felt it snatched away.  And his heart is moved.  Suddenly.  Completely.  He says, “whatever it is that is going on for you guys, I want to be a part of it.  Whatever it is that makes you the kind of people you are, sign me up.   And then they share the news.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Acts 16 and every chapter in Acts drawing us upward to what I’ve come to understand for this central book of our New Testament to be the key chapter, chapter 29.  The part St. Luke writes about the Holy Spirit-filled apostolic Church coming to an end in chapter 28.  And then our chapter, you and me the stars of the show:  we who receive the baton from those who have completed their portion of the race: we now are the ones to be his witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth.  His servants.  Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life, this new citizenship.  To be in our hearts and minds and our lives entirely planted in the old world as it passes away and yet already fixed in the life of the world to come.  Already there.  For Paul and Silas the Phillipi prison isn’t really a prison at all, but a bright and shining and beautiful corner of the New Creation of God.  The place where his Lordship is being manifested and will be manifested with power and glory and joy for ever and ever.  The Ascension.  He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father--whose kingdom is from everlasting to everlasting. 

And here we are: singing our hymns this morning like Silas and Paul, with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence, knowing and living, walking the talk, not only with our lips but in our lives--knowing that we are already right now in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Father and in the presence of the Lamb.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sixth Easter, "St. Marathon," and Rogation Sunday

Acts 16; The Revelation 21

Grace and peace this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter season, and with two additional notes regarding the calendar. 

Congratulations. first of all,  to those who figured out how to slip through the barricades and across the flowing streams of runners to find your way to church this morning.  Always a great day for the city, if a bit of a jumble for the churches.  Back in the mid and late 1990’s and early 2000’s I used to run in the marathon, as some of you will remember—and even though I haven’t done that for more than a decade now I still enjoy all the festivities of the day.  A good day I think for our city and region, and I know we would offer our prayers today with special intention for the runners and those who are assisting them at refreshment and first aid stations, all the support structures involved, for families, friends, people cheering and celebrating along the way.  Nice weather for a long run.   In early fall we’ll pray the Collect marked now in the new Prayer Book for “Proper 21,” and the Sunday nearest September 28.  In the older Prayer Books for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, but I think perfectly designed for Marathon Sunday:  “O God, who declares thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”  And of course remember also today St.Paul, in First Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?  So run, that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we, an imperishable one . . . .”

And second, always one of my favorite subjects!  The three weekdays of this coming week, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday are traditionally called “Rogation Days.”  From the Latin verb “rogo,” to “request,” (we have a number of words in contemporary use that are related: “interrogation,” for example.  In this case a rogation is a prayer, and Rogationtide a brief season in which prayers would be offered in agricultural communities during the spring planting season.  In rural English villages it was quite common at Evensong on Rogation Sunday to have a representative blessing of seed, and then to have a procession from the church to circle around the nearby fields and to bless the soil, and to pray for fair weather, sufficient rain, and an abundant harvest.  Years ago when I was serving up in Central Pennsylvania our Susquehanna Deanery, eight or nine churches up and down the Northern and Western Branches of the river, would co-host a Rogation Sunday evensong and potluck supper at St. Gabriel’s Church in Coles Creek, a country crossroads near the village of Benton--right out in the fields.  And if not too many of our St. Andrew’s  families, with the notable exception of Ben and Heather Shannon up in Stanton Heights, live on farms these days, I do know that we have plenty of gardeners.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash.  And in recent years Rogation Sunday has become time as well to think and pray about larger concerns of environmental stewardship, and always to give thanks for those who work to provide the food and clothing and shelter that we city dwellers all rely upon.

I’ve spent some time circling around the topic of Christian Stewardship this Easter season, and just to say that beginning in the first chapter of Genesis and continuing especially in the deep connection of God’s Chosen People with the Land of Promise, there is a deep and meaningful theme that emerges that if we are as Christian people to be eschatological and doxological, if our life here and now is to be deeply connected with the great hymn of praise before God’s heavenly throne, then part of that doxology, part of that worship, is expressed in the reverent care and nurture of the good land that God has provided for us.  Whether we’re talking about the day to day routines of care of our own backyard gardens or the Larimer Urban Garden Project that some of our Outreach team and congregation are working on this summer—or of the global concerns of environment and climate and all the rest, as Christians we would know that this is the material of our praise and worship.  It is to connect our world, this world, with the Garden in Genesis, and with the Easter version of that Garden in John’s great vision in Revelation 21:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.