Sunday, May 21, 2023

Ascension, 2023-A: Shedding our spiritual training wheels

Lectionary: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Note: The sermon acutally delivered was a little different. It can be viewed on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Webster Goves YouTube channel at 39 mins 20 seconds.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, which falls on the 40th day after Easter, and so it’s on a Thursday every year. We have transferred it to Sunday because it’s a principal feast, so it takes precedence over Sunday. It’s a principal feast because this is the moment Jesus hands over to the church the continuing ministry of reconciliation in His name.

Reflecting on how to live in this state of reconciliation, the author of the letter to the church in Ephesus: says “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…”

Let’s take those things one at a time… 

What is the hope to which Jesus has called us?
  That there is no one, no thing, no event, no circumstance, that falls outside the reach of God’s redeeming love. That God’s plan has been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ, in whom we have been reconciled by the forgiveness of our sins. That every one of us will, at some point in our lives, be counted among those who are lost or gone astray, but because of our reconciliation to God in Jesus, no matter how lost we get, no matter how far we stray, we can never go beyond the reach of God’s redeeming love.

Our hope is grounded in the assurance that “nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (BCP, 862) I don’t know about you, but it’s a comfort for me to remember that even when I sin, I will not be cast out of the community of God’s love for it.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ. When we come into the presence of someone who doesn’t know that or has forgotten it, it’s up to us, as witnesses of Christ, to help them remember. When my kids were little our prayer before bed always ended with me saying, “There is nothing you could ever say or do that could make me stop loving you.” Imagine how joyful I was to learn recently that my daughter is saying the same thing to her children before bed! God’s love is like that – only better! …More faithful… More perfect… More merciful than any love we can offer.

Next question - What are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints? The “saints” are
all who believe. Think about how many people that is and how many riches they represent.

We have abundant riches right here at Emmanuel. In one person there is abounding generosity, in another – innocence and purity of heart, in another – a contagious joy. One brings poverty, another wealth. One is gay, another is straight, another trans or nonbinary. One is the teller of truths (even the hard ones), another is a source of gentleness and comfort. The gifts present among the body of Christ are brought together into a synergistic whole by God for the benefit of God’s people.

What is the purpose of these riches? To unite us one to another and to God – in love.

Finally, what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power – and why is it just for us who believe? The funny thing about God is that God gives lavishly, without regard to what we deserve. The greatness of God’s power is love and it dwells in each of us, and in all of us as a faith community, but it will go unrecognized, unobserved until seen with the eyes of an enlightened heart.

The ability to see and understand in this way comes from God. As we heard in the gospel, Jesus opened the minds of the apostles to understand the scriptures so that they could go out and proclaim the Good News to all nations, all people.

The same is true for us. The eyes of our hearts are enlightened by Jesus. The spirit of wisdom and revelation in us is the Holy Spirit of God which dwells in us that we have been reconciled by the forgiveness of sin.

When Jesus ascended, and the apostles were standing there gazing up at the sky, the messengers from heaven asked them, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking toward heaven?’ What you seek isn’t up there – it’s right here – in you.

To be fair, for the disciples, it wasn't yet, but it was about to be in them. Jesus told them to wait until they had been clothed with the power, that is, the love of God, from on high – which happened for them at that first Pentecost.

We, on the other hand, have already been clothed with this power. It happened for us at our Baptism. Some of us recommitted to it at our Confirmation. And all of us remember it each time we gather for Holy Eucharist.

Once upon a time, I visited a young church member named Lila at her home. This precious 4-year-old brought me outside to show me her new Princess bike. She showed me how she could ride it and how the training wheels would keep her from falling. She was quick to point out that she didn’t always need the training wheels – only sometimes - and one day, she wouldn’t need them at all.

I walked alongside Lila as she rode her Princess bike, leading me on a tour of the grounds of their home. She pointed out all the things I should notice as we went along, including her favorite purple flowers just coming into bloom.

As we journeyed together, the experience felt to me like an illustration of the path of Christian maturity. Lila knew she needed training wheels, not all the time, but sometimes. Lila also knew that one day she would learn to ride this Princess bike with no training wheels.

Walking alongside Lila and her Princess bike, I understood that if Jesus had not let us witness his ascension, we’d all still be riding around on our training wheels.

Jesus knew the disciples were ready. The disciples may not have realized it until they found themselves doing it – like when Peter shared his testimony with the household of Cornelius the Roman Centurion, or when he raised Dorcas from the dead in Joppa. Yes, Peter raised a woman from the dead!

Filled with excitement, fear, and confidence, the disciples went out and shared their Good News and amazing things happened. Now it’s our turn - and we're ready to shed our training wheels.

Let us pray: Give us grace, O God of love, to trust you. Give us confidence to pump our legs and ride out into your world, carrying your light in our eyes, your love in our hearts, and your gentleness in our actions. May our lives reflect the joy of being in relationship with you, and may our witness be one of justice, mercy, and peace toward all you created, in your Holy Name. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

6 Easter, 2023-A: The wormhole of spiritual understanding

Lectionary: Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

(Note: there is no pre-recorded video of this sermon since I was out of town at my father's funeral this week. The sermon can be watched on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Webster Groves YouTube channel)

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Our gospel today is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse given at the Last Supper, and it begins with “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” He goes on to say that those, “ who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Is Jesus telling us that his love of us is conditional on our obedience? It sounds like it since it says, if this then that. But the word we translate as “if” isn’t a conditional in the original Greek. It’s a word that points to a future possibility that experience determines.

Also, this teaching has nothing to do with obedience. That’s a whole different word in Greek and it isn’t present here.

So, Jesus is saying: When you love me, you will discover that you will maintain and continue what I have commanded you to do. So the real question is: what did Jesus command us to do?

The answer is: love. Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34) Love your enemies. (Mt 5: 44) Love God with all your hearts, minds, strength, and souls (Deut 6:5), and love your neighbors as yourselves. (Lev 19:18) Love. 

Jesus is about to enter the most difficult moment of his human experience and the disciples are terrified and confused. They don’t understand what he is saying to them - again. But honestly, how could they? It sounds like riddles or circular logic: God is in Jesus, who is in us, and we are in him, and through him, we are in God… and because he lives we also will live.

Perceiving the fear and confusion among his disciples Jesus speaks directly to it saying to them (and to us), I will not leave you comfortless or alone. I am coming to you in another way - to comfort you and support you forever.

One day, he says, you’ll know the truth of this co-abiding with the Divine Spirit through me. It’s a truth that is beyond human logic, as much today as it was then, and can only be known by the experience of it again and again in our lives. Sometimes, it’s a series of light bulbs going off in sudden realization. Other times it’s a slow turn of the dimmer switch until, one day, the light comes on fully.

I remember about 3 weeks into our Greek class in seminary and we were all feeling so overwhelmed by how vastly different Greek was, from the alphabet to the layers of meanings, and the many conjugations and tenses. Our professor assured us that one day, we’d just get it, and he snapped his fingers.

Oh sure, we thought. Easy for him to say! But he was right. One day, it suddenly all fell into place and the learning began to happen at lightning speed like a wormhole had been opened.

That was Jesus’ promise. On that day, you’ll get it! You’ll know that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” When that happens, you will have spiritual understanding, and my commandments will be within you, and you will be able to preserve them for all time and continue to live in them now and always.

On that day, you will know union with divine love. You will know that you are cherished by God who will be eternally faithful and loyal to you, and I will be revealed to you in ways you couldn’t have understood before, and it will change everything!

Our beloved Dame Julian of Norwich speaks of this experience so simply yet eloquently. Here are her words: 
“I desired in many ways to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.” 
This is the love in which “we live and move and have our being” as Paul quoted from the poets of his time… the love who “holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip” as the psalmist says. It all boils down to love: divine, eternal, sacrificial, joyful, mutual love.

This doesn’t change the fact that we will know suffering, doubt, and darkness throughout the course of our lives. In addition, we may get it, as Jesus said we would, then lose it again, and get it again, over and over throughout the course of our lives.

Knowing this love with spiritual understanding means that we will never be alone in any of the “changes and chances of this life.” (BCP, 133) We will never be comfortless. We will always be, as Dame Julian says, clothed in the love of God, which “wraps and holds us… enfolds us for love and will never let us go.”

We also have each other. Prayer not only “fastens us to God” as Julian says, it also fastens us to one another, connecting the love of God in you to the love of God in me, as it were. Those connections are real and through them God can change the world, working in and through us.

I pray this truth a lot because it was a life-changing revelation for me. I begin most of our Sunday services by inviting us to go deeply within, to our divine centers, where we acknowledge God’s connection to us and invite God to connect us to one another, making us all one as we celebrate our thanks together.

Since Julian of Norwich has been so present in this reflection on the Word, let’s close with the prayer assigned to her feast day, which was just last week: May 8. 

Let us pray: Lord God, who in your compassion granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Icon written by Anne Davidson, Diocese of Western Michigan. Used with permission.