Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascension, Memorial Day, and the Middle Way

Sermon for May 28, 2017 (Ascension, transferred)
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

I think it’s wonderfully ironic that for us – a bunch of rational, analytical people – our faith is full of paradox.  I love paradox; one of the reasons I embrace our Anglican tradition is that we can hold apparently conflicting truths in tension without letting them drive us completely crazy.  Try these on for size:  The path to eternal life is to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus to self-sacrifice.  The God we worship is a “Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being,” three in one and one in three (BCP 380).  Christianity is one paradox after another.
We get a healthy dose of paradox in the feast we honor today, too.  The feast of the Ascension was this Thursday, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection; and we’re marking it in our worship this morning.  I think the Ascension is one of the least-understood concepts in our faith, right up there with the Trinity itself.  Listen again to the prayer we offered earlier:  “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:  Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, [Jesus] abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages” (BCP 226).  Chew on that for a minute.  Plus, this is no asterisk in the catechism; it’s a core element of Christian doctrine.  We profess every week, in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (BCP 358).  And yet, at this altar we also proclaim that he is really present with us.
We heard the Ascension narrated in our readings this morning.  In Acts, the disciples are having an amazing time hanging out with Jesus in those 40 days after his resurrection.  And I think they’re figuring that since he’s defeated the power of death itself, surely it’s time to defeat the power of Rome, too.  Time to be the Messiah we all hoped you’d be, Jesus – God’s own warrior king.  So they ask him flat out, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Come on, Jesus, this has got to be the climax of the story.  But instead, paradoxically, Jesus leaves God’s work in their hands.  It’s not about political victory, no matter how badly that’s what the disciples want.  Instead, Jesus says, it’s about witness:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  And with that, he’s taken from their sight.  We’re told the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) a few days later, on Pentecost.  But for now, they’re standing there with their mouths hanging open, trying to wrap their minds around “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) even as he returns to divine majesty on high. 
So what does the Ascension mean in terms of how we understand God?  For me, it’s about uniting what seem to be opposites: immanence and transcendence, vulnerability and sovereignty, relationship and majesty – all at once.  Hang with me for a minute:  The fact that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father means that all sovereignty over heaven and earth has been given to him.  And, at the same time, the fact that Jesus has ascended, returning to the dance of relationship that is the life of the Trinity, that means God has experienced vulnerability God hadn’t quite experienced before, the brilliant joys and crushing sorrows of being human.  All that life Jesus lived didn’t just evaporate with resurrection and ascension.  It was taken back up into heaven, into the life of the God who is One in Three.  Jesus brings humanity into God’s heart in a deeply personal and intimate way.  So the sovereign of our world and of our lives is also our greatest advocate, the one who pours out on us “grace upon grace” (John 1:16) despite our constant failures and faithlessness.  Transcendence and immanence; sovereignty and vulnerability; majesty and relationship:  Welcome to the life of our ascended Lord.
So what earthly difference does all this make – literally, what difference for us here on earth, in the midst of the messiness of our lives?  It’s kind of fun, intellectually, to revel in the poetry of God’s paradoxes.  But it would be helpful if all this actually mattered in daily life. 
So, hang with me again.  I’ve got two more paradoxes for you.  The first is the paradox of the two things we’re celebrating this weekend.  Sometimes the Church calendar and the secular calendar crash into each other spectacularly, and this weekend is one of them.  As we remember the Ascension of our Lord into sovereign majesty, we also mark Memorial Day, when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service and honor the nation that they served.  For people with the peculiar job of planning worship, days like this present some cognitive dissonance:  Here we are, proclaiming Jesus as the cosmic ruler who transcends all boundaries of tribe and language and nation, “far above all [human] rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21).  Yet at the same time, we’ve posted the flag of our own nation as we pray for those who’ve fallen in its service; and we’ll soon raise our voices in song asking God to protect and guide our nation particularly – by implication, at least, saying, protect us, Lord, from those other people in other countries who don’t follow you as well as we do.  There are times when following the flag and following the cross don’t pair so easily, despite these flags standing beside each other here today. 
Now, you can take this to one extreme of the argument and say we should have no national emblems in church and sing no national songs because no nation equates with the kingdom of God.  Or you can take it to the other extreme of the argument and see the United States as the new Israel, God’s elect nation, uniquely the shining city on a hill.  Or, option 3, following our Christian and Anglican traditions, you can honor the paradox and find a middle way.  There are times when allegiance to the nation and allegiance to the sovereignty of Christ will present us with conflicts.  In those times, at our best, we can find ways to live in the blessed paradox of “both/and” – and bless the world around us in the process.
Here’s an example, the last paradox of the day.  On this Memorial Day and Ascension weekend, I want to commend a movie for your viewing pleasure.  Actually, “pleasure” isn’t the right word because much of this film is not very pleasurable to watch.  It’s Hacksaw Ridge, one of last year’s Oscar nominees for best picture.  As you may know, it’s the story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia who comes of age in the Depression and the early years of World War II.  Like so many millions of the Greatest Generation, he signed up to serve in our armed forces and fight against Hitler and Imperial Japan.  But unlike nearly all of his comrades in arms, Doss refused to take up arms.  He was a conscientious objector, refusing even to hold a weapon, much less fire one; but he was also a patriot, insisting he had service to offer his nation.  Ironically, he had to fight to convince the Army that he could serve – and, more to the point, be trusted to serve – as a medic, fighting for his country by saving people’s lives instead of taking people’s lives.  If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the story for you, other than to say Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor without ever firing a shot.
Desmond Doss lived in the tension of paradox, keeping one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom of heaven, with each foot firmly planted.  He knew exactly where he stood.  Few of us will know the kind of tension Doss faced, and (thank God) few of us will find ourselves in a situation where the stakes of our decisions are so high.  But you know, we all will find ourselves in situations where we have to ask:  “Where does my allegiance lie?  What is my sovereign power?  Is my sovereign my bank account?  Or my professional success?  Or my family?  Or my country?  Or my risen and ascended Lord?”  For those who travel the middle way, there is room for authority of several kinds.  St. Paul himself urged the Christians living in Rome, of all places, to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) despite the fact those governing authorities had nailed Jesus to the cross as a rebel king.  And, at the same time, St. Paul could proclaim with complete certainty that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” or kyrios, which was the emperor’s title (Philippians 2:10-11). 
So, where is that tension operative for you?  Day by day, in decisions great and small, how are you pulled to honor one sovereign or another?  And where, for you, is that path of Desmond Doss, the decorated soldier who never fired a shot?

Solid Citizens or Disciples?

Sermon from Sunday, May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

St. Andrew's hosts the monthly luncheon of the Southtown Council, the local business association.  As people were gathering for lunch this Wednesday, I was talking with one of our neighboring business owners, Andy Wolff, who’s a massage therapist.  Andy said he felt convicted that he needed to do something about a real problem he saw in our community – the risk of teen suicide.  After the recent tragedy involving a St. Paul’s Day School graduate, teen suicide is a threat that strikes pretty close to home.  So Andy took it on himself to put together a suicide-prevention workshop, which is happening later this afternoon, actually.
Before the luncheon, Andy and I were setting out flyers on the tables at the same time – his inviting people to his workshop; mine inviting people to our picnic and HJ’s farewell party later this morning.  I showed him the image of the new building and told him what we had in mind for it as a place to support church ministries and build relationships with people in the community.  He said, “You know, I had a really hard time finding a good spot for my workshop.  I would’ve much rather hosted it here in Brookside rather than down at the library.  It’s great that you’re doing this new building,” he said – “just the kind of thing our community needs.”  I don’t know where else this potential partnership might go, but it’s exciting to imagine how we might come alongside Andy in the work he feels called to do to respond to a deep need and build the well-being of our community.  Sounds like an opportunity to proclaim Good News in word and deed.
Similarly, I mentioned a couple of Sundays ago that Mike McKinne, our engagement coordinator, has been connecting with a new initiative being offered by Research Medical Center.  It’s called Brookside Babies, “a neighborhood and online resource for all things fertility, pregnancy, baby, and being a parent”1 … a way for parents to connect with each other and learn about healthy parenting.  Mike got in touch with the person organizing Brookside Babies, and – long story short – St. Andrew’s is going to be a partner with Research in offering the program.  We’ll provide resources for building spiritual well-being for young adults who are beginning the blessed and challenging journey of raising kids in this day and age.  Again, it’s a chance for us to come alongside people in our community who are feeling called to build wellness and quality of life for people around us.
These are great steps – great ways to connect with people who aren’t necessarily looking for a worship experience at 8:00 or 10:15 on a Sunday morning but who do have a need for God’s healing and resurrecting power in their lives.  But the question is, once we develop a partnership like this, then what?  What’s our next step, as followers of Jesus Christ here in this family of St. Andrew’s?
I think we can learn a lot from the example of St. Paul in today’s reading from Acts.  This story shows just how much of a “back to the future” experience being a Christian today really is.  In a lot of ways, we’re living not just in the 21st century but in the 1st century, too, right there with St. Paul.  This reading is set in Athens, but it could be Kansas City instead. 
The apostle Paul finds himself in a place where there is no dominant spiritual narrative.  As he walks around Athens, taking in the sights, he sees many grand buildings honoring the official religion, temples to this god and that god.  In Athens 2,000 years ago, lots of people practiced the official religion, but whether they really believed in it is another question, especially in such a cosmopolitan city.  There, as Acts says, “the Athenians and the foreigners … would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21). 
So Paul spends time in Athens debating with philosophers.  He’s trying to take the way Jesus has transformed his life and connect it with the experience of the people there.  His experience of the living Christ has changed his heart, recalibrated his reality; and he’s looking for a way to translate that for the people God has put in front of him.  So, he keeps his eyes open.  He listens deeply to the people around him.  And he finds the living God at work, even in the spiritual shopping mall of Athens. 
Out of the way, probably on a side street, Paul finds a small temple “to an unknown god” (17:23).  It’s a wonderfully Athenian thing – if all paths lead to the same place, why not set up a temple to honor whichever god you may have missed along they way?  So Paul takes that bit of experience about life in Athens and uses it to connect with the hearts and minds of the people he meets.  In the reading, Paul is speaking to the equivalent of a community forum of thought leaders, but he could just as easily have been having a more intimate conversation over a beer or a latte.  The point is that he looked for an expression of the kingdom of God, something advancing God’s purposes in the community around him; and he linked what he found to God’s invitation to resurrected life for all people.
That’s our task, too: looking closely and listening deeply to find the Holy Spirit at work around us, then coming alongside that kind of blessing, naming how it serves God’s purposes, and connecting with people who are involved in it – building relationships, linking people together, and inviting them into what God’s doing in and through this church family.
To do that, we need what St. Paul had.  We need to know what we believe, and we need to have something to say about it.  We need to be formed as disciples – having a sense of God’s story, seeing where that big story connects with our own story, and being equipped to engage with other people about it.  It’s about claiming our faith and connecting it across the breadth of our lives so that it guides everything we do, every decision we make; and then being able to reflect on that with other people.  That’s the goal of what we call our formation ministries, which we’re celebrating this morning – ministries that help children, youth, and adults learn and follow the disciple’s path with every step of our lives.
So, what does it look like to when your faith is life-wide, guiding the very practical steps we all have to take?  Here’s a real-world example at the top of my own mind in the moment.  Some of you know from Facebook that Ann and I are having some work done on our house.  It’s not very sexy, as home improvement goes – replacing a broken driveway, replacing windows from 1955, replacing ugly linoleum, repainting the house, that kind of thing.  Frankly, home improvement would not be my first choice for how to spend a fair amount of money.  I barely even spend any time at my house, so my enjoyment of our investment will be kind of limited.  Honestly, I’d much rather go back to England for an extended vacation instead.  But part of the discernment for Ann and me was about our stewardship of this house that God has given us.  We need to leave it better than how we found it, because it’s only ours to use for a season anyway.  We may be the owners legally, but in truth we’re only caretakers, stewards of what God provides for our use.  And we have a responsibility to tend and manage that gift so God can later give it to someone else – even if I would rather go to England.  Part of being a disciple, part of loving God, is following God’s path even when it conflicts with your own.
So guess what?  I just “witnessed” to you, and nobody got up and left.  Pretty sneaky, huh?  Did you feel thumped with a Bible?  Did you feel like Jesus was being shoved down your throat?  See, it’s not rocket science to know what we believe and to have something to say about it.  And you won’t even have people turn and walk away from you.
That’s what this buzz word, Christian formation, is all about.  It equips us to know our faith, own our faith, and connect our faith to real life.  That’s what’s happening in Godly Play with the little kids.  That’s what’s happening in Children’s Chapel.  That’s what’s happening on the youth ski retreat and the mission trip to Haiti.  That’s what’s happening when kids serve as acolytes or gather in youth group or earn a God and Country badge.  That’s what’s happening as grown-ups study the Bible, or discuss good books, or learn about Christian history.  That’s what’s happening when people meet and pray together.  That’s what’s happening when eight guys share a beer at a bar, talk about Scripture, and help each other see how God’s been working in their lives.  That’s Christian formation.  It’s what gives us our story and the words to share it with someone else.
So, back to my question earlier:  As members of this family of St. Andrew’s, as we build connections with people around us in ways we’ve practiced for decades and in ways we’re only beginning to learn – then what?  What is it that makes us followers of Jesus rather than simply solid citizens?  The difference is the path of discipleship:  Step one, remember God’s story.  Step two, know your own story.  Step three, name the connection points between God’s story and your story as you come alongside people to practice love.  “On that day,” Jesus said, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,” (John 14:20).  For when we use our stories to build connections and invite people into relationship, the Holy Spirit will guide us, and we will truly live.

1.       “Welcome.”  Brookside Babies.  Available at:  Accessed May 18, 2017.