Proper 14A, 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Deacon Sue Nebel

Genesis 37:1-4,12-28; Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b; Matthew 14:22-33

This has been an unsettling week. . .and that feels like an understatement.  Belligerent, threatening rhetoric from the leaders of North Korea and our own country.  The very real fear of possible armed conflict with catastrophic results.  Then Friday night and yesterday, the news of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.  A painful reminder of the continuing reality of racism in our country.  Unsettling indeed.  Everything seems shaky and uncertain. Then what do we get for our Gospel lesson this morning?  Heavy winds on the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus’ disciples in a boat on the tumultuous water, gripped by fear.  It seems appropriate.

This morning’s passage from Matthew picks up at the end of last’s week’s reading: the Feeding of the FiveThousand.  The crowds are dispersing.  Jesus has gone up on the nearby mountain by himself for a time of prayer.  He has sent the disciples off in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But things don’t go according to plan.  Strong winds come up during the night, making the water rough and battering the disciples’ boat. Early in the morning, Jesus starts out, walking on the water toward the disciples.  Seeing him, the disciples are terrified. They think he is a ghost.  Jesus calls out to reassure them.  Peter responds to his words, saying: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus replies: “Come.”  Peter then gets out of the boat and begins walking on the water toward Jesus. It is all going so well, but then Peter notices the wind and is afraid, uncertain.  He begins to sink.  Jesus reaches out and pulls him to safety, admonishing him for not having enough faith.

It is tempting, when looking at this story, to focus on the most striking, attention-grabbing part: Jesus walking on water.  Putting our rational minds to work, we try to come up with an explanation of how Jesus manages to do this.  Or we can simply dismiss it as some kind of illusion caused by the emotional state of the disciples.  Quite honestly, I don’t have an explanation for how Jesus does this, but I am willing to accept the reality of the experiences of the disciples.  This is what they saw and they told others about it.  The story was carried forward in the oral tradition until it was finally written down. 

What is important in this story, in my mind, is the part about Peter.  Peter is the most visible of Jesus’ disciples.   He is the one who always speaks up.  He asks questions.  He blurts out what he is thinking and feeling. Peter puts himself out there; he takes risks.  And like most risk-takers, he sometimes fails. But through it all, Peter always wants to be faithful.  He wants to please Jesus.  He wants to meet Jesus’ expectations of a good disciple.  This is what is happening in the Gospel story. Peter does not look around at the other disciples and say, “Watch this. I’m going to walk on water.”  No. Peter focuses his eyes and attention on Jesus. He does indeed walk on water—until he is distracted by the wind and falters. After Jesus pulls Peter to safety, he chides him (gently I hope) for his lack of faith.

The good news here is that Jesus doesn’t give up on Peter.  He doesn’t tell him that he is a failure as a disciple.  He doesn’t dismiss him.  He simply tells him that, in this moment, he didn’t have enough faith.  He continues to value him and to love him.  In turn, Peter doesn’t give up on Jesus. He never quits.  Peter hangs in there. He keeps on trying to be faithful.  Sometimes he succeeds.  Sometimes, he fails.  But he keeps at it.  We can take heart from Peter’s example. We are all Peter.  We too want to be faithful.  We too want to measure up to the demands of discipleship.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.  But we keep on trying.  That is what it means to be faithful. 

In my moments of feeling fearful and anxious about events in the world this past week, I admit I have wished for a heroic figure to appear on the scene. Someone to calm things down and make it all better.   That has not happened, of course. So I have done what I often do in times like this. I turn to a trusted person of wisdom and faith. Steven Charleston is one of those people. He is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Alaska and a Native American.  He posts reflections regularly on the Internet.  This is what he offered on Wednesday morning.

I went to sleep with the sound of sabers rattling all around me and I awoke to find the world still anxious about the threat of war. These are the rare moments in history when we all hold our breath. The historical limit to human leadership seems so clear when the push of a button can end that history. I have been praying hard that people keep talking before they decide to act impulsively. I know you have too.

May the Spirit do what alone we cannot do: restore a sense of calm, open up new paths of dialogue, give peace time enough to serve the cause of justice.

Charleston states the obvious: As Christians we should pray, individually and collectively. I am somewhat relieved that what he hopes for, i.e. that people keep talking before acting impulsively, seems to be happening.

But what else? How do we move forward?  How do we keep being faithful in the midst of all this.  What has emerged for me as I pondered that question in the middle of the night, is the word “fierceness.”   I know that it is the Holy Spirit’s doing, giving me that word.  I also know where it originated.  On my early morning walk a few days ago, when my mood was probably the darkest, a wonderful thing happened.  A blocks from my house, I saw some men with heavy machinery, digging a large hole in front of a house a couple of doors ahead of me.  Just then, I heard a child’s voice and looked to my right.  There was a little boy, probably about three years old, sitting on the front step.  He was fascinated by the men and their equipment. A thoughtful parent or caregiver had set his breakfast next to him.  There he was, happily eating his breakfast and talking to himself, as he watched the men at work. 

In that moment I had an overpowering rush of emotion, an intense affirmation of what I hold near and dear.  I love life.  I love this world that God created and that we try to maintain.  I love God’s children.  I don’t want life to be cut short by some nuclear disaster.  I do not want this world destroyed. I want peace and justice in the world.   I want that little boy sitting on his front step to grow up and become what he wants to be: someone who uses machines to dig big holes in yards, or whatever else.  I want it not only for him, a white child with all the privileges that provides.  I want it for all children. Whatever their skin color, their ethnic background, the country where they live now, or where they have lived in the past.  That was for me a moment of fierceness.  I carry the image of that little boy in my heartHe reminds me to live fiercely.  To care deeply.

The events in Charlottesville were shocking.  Whatever veil of unknowing or ignoring we had drawn across the reality of racism in this country was ripped to shreds.  The violence, the hatred, the use of Nazi signs and slogans.  All of it goes against everything Jesus teaches. To love one another.  To respect the dignity of every human being.  We have work to do.  We have to recognize and name racism.  In ourselves and in the world around us.  To join in efforts to eliminate it.  To keep on being faithful, as best we can.

                Fierceness.  Fierceness—and all that it means to me—is the word that is working for me right now.  I offer it to you, in hope that you can take it and make it your own.  If fierceness doesn’t work, I invite you to find a word that is better.  Remembering Peter, the word faithfulness comes to mind.  Or perhaps, the image of Peter himself might do.  And there is always the image of Jesus, urging us to continue the work he started.  Whatever you choose, embrace it.  Carry it within you, to push you to live fully, boldly.  To live, not live trapped in fear and anxiety, but to be fully involved in the work of faithful discipleship. To make this world a better place for everyone.  Everyone.

 

AUGUST 6, THE FEAST OF THE TRANSFIGURATION

Andrew Suitter

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36

Transfixed: Breaking the Silence

Augustine of Hippo, our beloved St. Augustine, once said, “Be what you see, receive what you are.” “Be what you see, receive what you are.” “Be what you see, receive what you are.” In his sermon about the Eucharist, Augustine penned these words about the bread we see raised up every week that we gather together.  He says,

Remember that bread is not made from one grain, but from many.  When you were being exorcised, it’s as though you were being ground.  When you were baptized it’s as though you were mixed into the dough.  When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, it’s as though you were baked.  Be what you see, and receive what you are.[1]

One of the first times I ever attended an Episcopal church service, several things stood out to me. First, we had the struggle of juggling a bulletin, a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer. Second, we had the struggle of juggling a bulletin, a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer, all the while doing the calisthenics of genuflecting, sitting, kneeling and standing. I wondered what I was getting myself into.  Three, it confirmed for me that introverts everywhere might possibly dread the passing of the peace.  And fourth, and perhaps the most serious, is the sound of the breaking of the bread. 

This thing we experience together every week was for me, the first time, memorable.  The silence in the room was palpable.  Our eyes, transfixed by this bright Host being raised up to God, watch, and out of the silence comes this cracking, this breaking of the bread.  The silence continues as it is brought down, laid on the plate and we pause together for a brief moment.  “Alleluia,” the priest said.  “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.” And we replied, “Therefore, let us keep the feast, Alleluia.”

I have never forgotten that experience, and I hope I never do.  The silence, the sounds of cracking and breaking, of this wafer becoming the body of Christ that is reflected in you and in me was somehow transfixed.  It was as if this Host brought me to attention, and snapped me out of this liminal space where my own problems seemed to go on the back burner. I was invited to sit in that silence, and wait to experience something holy. That silence might well have been the words we hear spoken to the disciples today.  A voice that said, “Hey, Listen. This is my Son.”

Be  what you see, receive what you are.

The transfiguration is a text that present us with the opportunity to imagine where is it in our own lives, God might be saying, “Hey, you.” Maybe it is to say, “I love you,” or “I have this taken care of” or, “this thing over here, this is what I am calling you to do.” It shows us the many ways God comes to us to confirm God’s own love for us, and God’s involvement in our lives especially when we do not always feel it, remember it, or believe it. 

What I have come to love about Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is that the disciples seem to have a certain familiar quality to them.  Sure they are set apart as disciples, but they too don’t always “get it.” They too do not always understand what is before them and miss what might be in front of them—and yet God still calls and equips them. 

Sometimes, we can’t get out of our own way.  We can become so focused on what we know, or on what we have experienced, that it is hard to imagine new ventures, new callings, or even the original one we set out on.    

This is what we see happening with the disciples in this passage.  Consider, Peter.  Just a bit before where we pick up today in Luke, it is Peter who just confesses faith in our Lord—and if we remember the Passion—we know it is also Peter who denies his faith—despite knowing all that he does.  And yet it is that same depth of knowledge and experience that eventually brings him back to faith. 

The two other disciples, James and John, who have more minor roles in this passage, seem to be along for the hike as part of the pack, and are described by Luke as being “weighed down with sleep.” If you have ever hiked in higher elevations, it is easy to imagine this.  Whenever I have hiked in Colorado or Utah, I notice that my body tires much more easily than in normal altitudes.  I have to drink more water, and push through the lingering dull headache that takes a day or two to go away.  Luke tells us the disciples pushed through their weighted sleepiness, and by doing so got to experience something amazing. 

The synoptic versions of this story, found in Mark, Matthew and Luke, vary in some regard.  Luke wrote his gospel with the knowledge of Mark’s gospel.  All three gospel accounts include Peter’s intention to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, but only Luke is specific about the purpose of the group’s trip to the mountain, which was to pray.What stands out to me most about these disciples is that for as long as they have been following Jesus, and been engaged with the Hebrew scriptures, they still did not see what was before them. 

When Jesus appeared with Moses, and Elijah, Peter wanted to build a dwelling place for them and keep them around—despite knowing that what was to come for Jesus was not good.  Perhaps Peter was protective, or perhaps he was even afraid or just shortsighted. But one thing he teaches all of us, is that following Christ into the known and unknown can be hard without the grounding of a community, a Body of Christ, to walk these things out with us. It is often the community gathered here each week, this Body of Christ, that reminds us to keep going, to keep pushing through even if our faith or our courage is challenged.

Luke calls us, the community of the Body of Christ, to prayer.  Luke calls us to the quiet, to the places where we might have to push through, in order that we might hear from God. And graceful Luke reminds us that even when we do listen, when God does speak so clearly to our hearts, we still may not get things right on the first try or two—and that is part of our faith journey together. 

Be what you see, receive what you are.

Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit I felt that morning in my first Episcopal Service.  Perhaps it was the divine moving through imperfect hands and people, calling us to do holy things. 

In a recent conversation with my friend and seminary colleague, Claire Brown, she said something quite thoughtful about how striving for perfection in anything, especially our understanding of God, and our service to God, can blur the ways we can see and hear God at work in our lives.  Claire says,

Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system—at least Siri…Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail.  Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it…[2]

Perhaps we live with these expectations from time to time.  Perhaps we, like the disciples, want to build a box for God.  Perhaps we too get overwhelmed, and unable to see maybe where God has been in the story all along, or where it is God is leading us in the future. 

Listen to the silence after the bread is broken.  It calls us back time and time again, and invites us to relationship with God and one another—as imperfect as we are—to break bread, to break new ground, and to offer our hands and our hearts to the work of our Lord that is loving and healing this world.  This is the body of Christ in action.  This is the word made flesh among us. 

Be what you see, receive what you are. Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.stansleminstitute.org/files/Augustine/%20Sermon%20272.pdf Augustine of Hippo, Sermon about the Eucharist, numbered 272, found in St. Anslem archives.

[2] Conversation with colleague Claire Brown, thoughts around perfection and the drive to always get it right.

July 30, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Kristin White

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

These are the weeds that grow persistently in the grounds of the rectory…

Dandelion: They’re everywhere, I know. And they spread quickly in both grass and flower bed. Like most little kids (and, let’s face it, big kids) are aware, it’s pretty fun to make a wish and blow those fluffy little seed pods out to propagate.

Ground Ivy: This has inhabited our back flower bed from the time when a tree lived there too, which somehow made that ivy less noticeable, at least to me. What I’ve learned, though, in the process of getting rid of it, is that pulling out ivy by root and tendril can be a very satisfying accomplishment.

Nodding Plumeless Thistle: These root themselves quickly, and they’re so sharp and prickled that -- and I'm speaking from personal experience, here -- you probably shouldn’t grab ahold of them without some nice tough gloves on your hands.

Lesser Celandine: These are sneaky. They look like buttercups, which seem so civilized and polite, but between those and the ground ivy, we have had to battle to recover our back flower bed.

Crab Grass: On germination, this shows up too much like the alyssum I planted on purpose last spring…but it’s soooo much more persistent…and so much less beautiful…and it infiltrates among the other things I planted on purpose: like five kinds of tomatoes, and the second round of scarlet runner beans from seeds we blessed here at our altar last year during Lent, and marigolds and nasturtiums and even some surreptitious, supposedly non-invasive morning glory vines.

So it’s frustrating, and maybe more than a little annoying, to plant this stuff I want to have grow, to pull weeds to make room, and then turn around a few days later to find still more weeds. Quackgrass. Purple loosestrife. Bindweed. Tree of Heaven.

One thing I have never, ever planted is a mustard seed. I haven’t ever heard of people working to nurture their mustard plants, haven’t known of gardeners to congratulate one another on an abundant crop of…mustard. Honestly, it seems a little strange.

I had to look it up, even, so my knowledge of mustard seed farming is limited only to scripture passages and online searches. Mustard plants don’t grow in neat rows, it turns out, they show up in a field and take over. So getting all excited about somebody’s mustard harvest seems a little bit like saying –“Hey, what a tall and fluffy field of dandelion puffs you’ve managed to grow, there, right in the next yard over,” as I hold my breath and wait for the next strong wind to blow.

One thing, though, that Jesus never, ever says in all of his parables, is this: The kingdom of heaven is like an heirloom tomato plant: add some compost and plant it in the sun, stake it just right and keep it watered, and it will yield predictable tomatoes, just like you expected…tasty with some salt and a nice crusty loaf of bread.

Jesus never says that.

No, Jesus’ kind of plant grows outside our expectations. It surprises and annoys and even frustrates us.

Honestly, the crab grass is driving me crazy.

And it feels like I just got all the bindweed out from among the sunflowers John planted next to our driveway; but when I came home from church yesterday there were twice as many weeds there as I thought I pulled last time.

So is that what the kingdom of heaven is like?

Persistent and sharp and annoying, always showing up in the places where we thought it had finally been rooted out?

Because honestly, I think that’s good news this week.

From the Russia investitagation, to the health care debates and vote and fallout, to the service of transgender people, to the Illinois state budget, to White House (ahem) staffing, to a speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree, to the North Koreans launching missiles, any piece of which could claim its own news cycle, instead each piece this week has converged in rapid succession, practically before we can take a breath and absorb the last. So in the midst of all that, a word that the kingdom of God will persist, and surprise, and reclaim with insistence, this gospel is good news indeed.

This is a week when I need to know that God’s kingdom doesn’t have to be coddled with compost and sunshine and just the right placement, but instead will come in and spring up and take over, maybe even spite of us...and surely outside the orderly rows where my own imagination might well place unnecessary limit.

This is a week when I need to know that all things really do work together, for good, for those who love God: ivy and rose, thistle and tomato, crab grass and coreopsis and cosmos and celandine.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding with sighs that are too deep for words.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? he asks: hardship or distress, persecution or famine, nakedness or peril or sword? None of that, Paul promises the church at Rome, Paul promises this church in Wilmette today. Neither death nor life; neither angels nor rulers; neither things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation; not one thing, finally, will separate us from God’s love.

Mustard seeds are tiny, to the point of going unseen. They invade, overturn what had been; they frustrate what we might have anticipated.

Is the kingdom of God like that?

Is God’s love, in the end, like that?

If so, I think that’s good news for a world that has exhausted its predictable outcomes. Our overly-cultivated soil needs to be transformed and redeemed in unexpected ways, maybe even subversive ways. Because left to our own devices, we will not transform ourselves. Left to our own devices, we cannot redeem ourselves.

But God can.

The same God who imagined mustard seeds in the first place, and then brought forth life and growth from them, a place where birds can find their landing place.

The same God who took a handful of dirt, shaped it into God’s very own image and likeness, and then breathed sacred breath into that first person.

That’s the God who calls us good, the God who calls us very good; the God who will allow not one thing to separate us from God’s own love; the God who promises to surprise us by bringing forth a kingdom greater than we can ask, more beautiful than we can ever imagine.

July 23, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 11

Pastor Frank C. Senn

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. July 23, 2017

Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

We’re in the season of sowing and reaping—in our lectionary as well as in summertime.  Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ parable of the sower who spread seed all over the place.  Not all of it fell into good soil, but some did and produced a bountiful harvest.

Today Jesus follows that up with another parable (at least as Matthew presents them).  This time the seed has taken root and is growing but weeds are growing up along with the wheat.  The farmer suspects that an enemy has planted the weeds.

What do we do about evil in the world?  That’s the issue. We’ve had plenty of examples of that in the course of history and in current events.  You don’t have to think only about Al Quaeda to think about evil in the world.  We encounter instances of it in daily life.

Early Christians were concerned about living in an unconverted world with evil lurking all around.  Matthew addressed that concern in his community by reporting these parables of Jesus.   He often uses language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation.  Thomas Long describes them as "stark, uncompromising, unequivocal pictures of good and bad spiced up with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth." In response to our ancestors' struggle with the presence of evil in their midst (not so much why it was there, but what to do about it), Matthew provides pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little church, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by "bad seed," the "weeds" sown by a power at odds with God's vision for the world.

 

Once again, Jesus is teaching the gathered crowd in parables (to get the hard of hearing to hear, he explained).  Later, in private, he explains the parable to his closest disciples, evidently leaving the crowd to wrestle on their own with his words, even as I guess we do today at the end of a sermon. Matthew provides the kind of explanation of the parable that is thought to be more often the voice of the early church seeking "the" meaning of the parable.

Barbara Brown Taylor reads parables not as direct answers to direct questions that we all have and want answered (clearly and specifically). Instead, she says, they deliver "their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious.... Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding."

Maybe parables are best left alone with their surprises, their punch lines, to challenge our customary thinking.  And that’s apparently what Jesus did when he told his parables to the crowds.

But Matthew includes Jesus’ own interpretations of his parables, given to the disciples in private.  We can’t ignore these interpretive passages because they are also part of the canonical text. And they do help to focus our interpretations so our thinking doesn’t wander all over the place.

Last week, Jesus’ interpretations of the parable of the sower alerted us, his disciples, to the things we are up against when we try to spread God’s Word.  This kind of realism is important for any who undertake the mission of the Gospel.

Today there is also an important clue in the interpretation that helps us to focus our thinking about the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together.  Because our temptation is to think about wheat and weeds growing together in the church.  We tend to be so church-centered when we hear the parables of Jesus.  Maybe that’s because we heard them in church.  And so we ask, “What do we do about weeds in the church?”

 

But why do we assume that the weeds Jesus is speaking of are in the Church?  Because we do.  And then we must figure out who the weeds are.  Once we identify the weeds we want to do what the farmer in Jesus’ parable told his slaves they couldn’t do: root them up.  He told his slaves, “You don’t want to do that because in the process you’ll also root up the wheat.” 

Down through the ages religious communities have presumed that they could tell who are the weeds and have attempted to root them out.  Maybe they’re immortal people who don’t live by the standards of God’s Law.  Maybe they’re heretics whose teachings undermine the Gospel.  Maybe they’re just disagreeable people who undermine the harmony of the community.  Get out bell, book, and candle and have a rite of excommunication.

But the field in Jesus’ parable is not the church, it is the world.  He says so in his interpretation: “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”

So should we go on a crusade to root out evil in our society?  Religious groups and churches have done that too. We can’t organize crusades today like the Church did in the Middle Ages.  Some of those crusades, by the way, were not against Muslims in the Holy Land but against Christian heretics in France and Italy—or Muslims and Jews in Spain and Germany.  No, in a democratic, pluralistic society all we can do is form a moral majority and get out the vote and punish any politicians who don’t toe the Church’s line on various issues.  Surely we’re supposed to do something about evil and wrongdoing in the world and lifestyles and values that we perceive to be detrimental to the common good.

But that’s not the way it is in Jesus’ parable.  The farmer tells the slaves to let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest.  And then note Jesus’ interpretation: the angels will do the reaping and separate the weeds from the wheat, not us.  In other words, the final judgment is God’s business. And thank God that it is. 

 

Still, there is another way to look at this mix of good and evil, and that's to look within ourselves. Thomas Long writes, "It is easy for Christians to look through the church windows at the world and to think of ourselves as God's special insiders, the ones who will 'shine like the sun' in the end. We can relish with smug self‑satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the great finale, collected like weeds and burned up in the everlasting fire. However, we are, ourselves, a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not...."

One of Martin Luther’s main teachings is that we are saints and sinners at the same time. Not sometimes saints and sometimes sinners, but always saints and sinners simultaneously. That’s why we can’t trust even our good works or become too self-righteous.   

Jesus' parable speaks of the burning of the weeds, as was customary in that time when weeds provided fuel for the fires (a good thing). It’s like bringing something good out of evil. It's Matthew's way of reading fiery judgment into the story, terrifying us even centuries later. But Thomas Long asks if we couldn't we see that fire as a purifying of all that "deadens humanity or corrupts God's world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God's everlasting love."

Strangely, these can be vividly reassuring words, strengthening words, sustaining words for us today just as they were for the very first Christians struggling to survive against the odds of living in a world in which good and evil are mixed together.  Maybe we need to remember that "God sends both sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” If God shows such generosity of spirit, can we do any less?

Finally, a good word from an otherwise cantakerous man, the fourth century Biblical scholar

St. Jerome. “The words the Lord spoke ‑ "Lest gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them"‑‑leave room for repentance.”  If there is room for repentance, for making changes in the church, in the world, in ourselves, there is room for hope.  Amen.

– Pastor Frank C. Senn, Evanston, IL

July 16, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 10

The Rev. Andrew Suitter

Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Good morning, everyone!  I first wanted to say thank you for calling me!  I have been looking very forward to being here, and getting to know all of you.  I have to say that from the first conversations with Kristin, and then Joy and Gray, and now so many others, your welcome has been a gift to me, and the transition a good one.  Thank you and thanks be to God!

Now, before I get too far, I wanted to share some things I learned during seminary about new priests and pastors who are set to preach on their first Sunday in their new church.  It is a bit anecdotal, but when one is in this situation, the temptations ring true, and so, one must be careful not to fall into them!  

The first trap a new minister can fall into on their first Sunday at the pulpit, is to talk only about themselves and what led them to this place.  You know, where they are from, their family, their education, and spiritual autobiography, and more.  All seems to be going fine until people begin looking at their watches and lo and behold—no scripture has yet been talked about and its been 15 minutes! The second trap is to ignore altogether that one is new, and to touch only on the scripture lessons at hand.  New priests or pastors can often fall into this trap because honestly, who really wants to fall into the first trap?! And the third trap is to prepare one’s absolute best sermon, pulling out all the stops.  Memorable stories, meaningful interpretations, pulpit jokes, or fancy Greek and Hebrew passages translated into English—ending up with a sermon so long, and so full of data that once it has been preached, one is faced with two problems: First, who will ever come back?  And, second, since I’ve shared everything I have—what about next week?!

So—in an effort to be faithful to you, to share about myself, and to get into the preaching, I’ll say this about myself for now: I grew up in the state of Maine.  I lived with my mother and father, and have one older brother who only since adulthood, has become one of my best friends.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins were a big part of my upbringing.  I ask your forgiveness now as I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I grew up in the Free Methodist and Nazarene Church traditions. In college, I studied Religion, Philosophy and Sociology, and for years I worked in social services or non-profit agencies.  I came into the Episcopal Church at a time when I needed it, and found the grace I was searching for and needed in my life—and not to mention I fell in love with liturgy. I spent six phenomenal years serving a community in Nashville, TN also called St. Augustine’s, which is where I began discerning my own call for holy orders.  I began my MDiv at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville in 2012, and was ordained in the diocese of MO this past June. 

My hope is that through our time together, you will allow me the grace to serve as one of your pastors and get to know you.  It is inevitable that more of my life will come though in the sermons I preach, too.  One of the things Seminary teaches us is to look for God in the hindsight of our stories, and to preach that. I hope we can do some of that together!  It truly is an honor to be called here to join in St. Augustine’s story of loving and healing the world, and of growing as disciples of our Lord.  I look forward to getting to know you, having coffee with you, and learning how best I can serve you as pastor. 

Now, the lectionary has a way with lessons, and the Holy Spirit has a way with timing, because this week’s lessons offer some wisdom to me anyway, as I transition into the vibrant life of St. Augustine’s.  And so to start this portion of the sermon, I offer these words of poet Wendell Berry from his book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.  It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.  Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.[1]

In Matthew’s gospel today, we have the first of seven parables to come in the weeks ahead.  Parables are short stories that share a point or teach a bigger lesson. In this parable, Jesus goes out into the lake and sits in a boat to speak to the masses who have gathered on the shore.  And from the boat, he tells a story about a farmer, a sower, and what happens to the seeds he plants.  We know some will be eaten by the birds, we know some will fall into soil too shallow for healthy roots to grow, and we know some will fall and take root so perfectly that a harvest is sure to come.  

Many interpret this parable to be about the nature of our relationship with God—where if our soil is not good, then when God tries to work through us, God cannot. I think there is deeper meaning here because such an interpretation as it is, seems to take away the idea that God extends to us grace after grace, and turns God into something we have some capital on—that with some checklist—we maintain a healthy life with God. 

On the contrary, what might be at the center of this passage, is the idea that no soil by itself is always plentiful, fruitful, and healthy—and that together only will our soils, our gardens, produce a rich soil.[2] Beloveds, each of us, at varying times, embody these soil types.[3] It doesn’t mean that because our soil is shallow, that we are—it could just be that we are in a season of change, and working through the pains which hold us down. There comes a time even for beautiful, dark and rich soil to be turned over, to lay fallow, because it too needs a break.[4]

It is in communities like this where seeds become dreams, dreams become action that nurture the community and the world.  When we co-mingle our own soil, in whatever state it is, with one another, we grow in grace for ourselves and others, and we live deeper into the call that is to love one another.

I want to join the soil that is St. Augustine’s because this community grows amazing seeds. I want to co-mingle my soil with the soil that is St. Augustine’s because they are a community discerning where it is God is leading them.  I want to dig up rocks, and till where we are called, together, because our communal life matters. 

Isaiah, prophet to the world over, preaches a similar message—eerily applicable this week with all the rain our area has had.  He says, “Surely as rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…so shall it be my word that goes out from my mouth…for you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace…as a sign that shall not be cut off.”[5]

A seed once cast into a church community I was part of, was the vision of Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is a social enterprise that employs women survivors of trafficking, abuse and addiction to make holistic bath and body products.  Magdalene is the program house the women share where they practice their recovery and the process it is to piece back together their lives in a safe environment.

Being part of that community in Nashville for many years, I’ve heard the question asked: Why the Thistle? It is prickly, difficult to handle, and a weed.  What I learned from being part of this community, is that the thistle is one of the few flowers that will grow up through concrete sidewalks, under bridges, as well as on beautiful hillsides. What I learned is that thistles were often the only flower that graced the streets the women walked upon, the bridges they slept under, and the hallows where they were abused. For them, the Thistle became a symbol of grace—it became a symbol of God’s presence even in turmoil—and called for them to come home even when it felt like they had no leg to stand on, no soil to regrow their life. To use Isaiah’s language, the thistle reminded them God was not cut off to them, ever.

Beloveds, we serve a loving God, a beautiful sower, whose invitation to create with us, never ends. We are called to live this life together with God, as we sow and reap, laugh and cry, and care for one another. I could not be happier than I am to be here with all of you, as we seek to serve God, and become practitioners of Grace.  I ask that as we journey together in this season, you’ll let me become one of your pastors.  I ask that you pray for me, as I have been and will continue to pray for you, and that together, we see what God is up to in our lives and growing in the soil of this beautiful community. 

Amen. 

[1] Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977.

[2] Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life, The Rev. Becca Stevens, Morehouse Publishing, 2015, Kindle Ed.  

[3] Commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, E. Johnson, www.working preacher.org, July 10, 2011.

[4] Letters from the Farm, Stevens, 2015.

[5] Portions of Isaiah 55:10-13, NRSV.

June 11, Trinity Sunday

Pastor Frank Senn

Festival of the Holy Trinity. Year A. June 11, 2017

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20

As we enter into summertime and can get out into God’s world it seems appropriate to begin with the creation story from Genesis. It’s also good to look more deeply at what this so-called priestly account of creation really says. Sometimes it helps to be literal, that is, to pay attention to words and phrases and how they get translated. In this regard I would point out that the Hebrew text does not say “In the beginning God created.”  It literally says, “In the beginning when God began to create...”  The text suggests that creation is an ongoing activity.  Nor does Genesis teach creation out of nothing. The Genesis text indicates that there was already something.  The earth was there but without solid form. Modern cosmology tells us that our planet was a fiery ball spun out from the sun. To the ancient Hebrew lack of form meant chaos, and the ancient Hebrews equated chaos with evil. The ongoing work of creation is God’s effort to bring order out of chaos, because chaos – evil – persists, as we know all too well. What God did in the work of creation was “good” because it countered the persistence of evil.

We’re at the beginning of the summer vacation season. For a lot of people this also means vacation from worship.  In this regard I would point out that the priestly author of the first creation account in Genesis is really building a case for weekly Sabbath observance.  God’s work on the six days leads to God’s rest on the seventh day, a day which God blessed and hallowed. That’s what the six days are all about. They represent work days and they are a lead-up to the seventh day, a day of cosmic rest. The Jewish and Christian traditions have held that the proper human response to God’s rest is for us to also rest from our usual work. But this doesn’t mean that we do nothing. The purposeful use of the Sabbath is to worship God and study God’s word.  To turn to God is to turn away from evil, at least every seventh day.

But this is Trinity Sunday.  Why is the first Genesis creation story our reading on this particular day?  Where is there a reference to the Trinity in this Old Testament text?  You might think: well, the text says that God created through his life-giving breath, and by his word, his self-communication.  These become personified later in the Bible as the Holy Spirit and the Logos, identified with the Son. So on this basis we can affirm that the God of creation is the Holy Trinity. God the Father creates by means of his Spirit and through his Word, incarnate in Jesus. “Through him all things were made,” says the Gospel of John.

 

But the church fathers saw the Trinity more explicitly in verse 26.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [the Hebrew is “adam”] in our image, according to our likeness.”  Who is God talking to when he says “Let us make”?  Is this just the so-called “plural of majesty,” like when the queen says “We are pleased?”  If so, why isn’t this expression used elsewhere in the Bible?  Is God talking to the heavenly creatures?  Did they have a role in helping God to create humankind?  No, they have no such creative power.  The only solution is that God is talking to Godself.  God is a plural personality.

Moreover, the text goes on to say that God created humankind plural: male and female.  Humankind is created to complement and complete one another, just as God in three persons complements and completes Godself.  While there’s a lot of discussion today about gender being on a sliding scale, this isn’t about gender (which is a cultural construct); this is about biology.

In the years before I retired I had a weekly evening Bible study group at Immanuel, Evanston. We began “In the beginning” with Genesis and worked our way through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book. We made it through the Books of Kings and Chronicles before the time came for me to retire. But I’ll never forget that when we completed Genesis, one of our regulars said, “Why, this book is all about sex!” Yes, it is. Begetting is about procreation. In the unfolding story it mattered who gave birth to whom.

Genesis 1 says that humankind is created in the image and likeness of God.  In our need for one another we reflect the being of God.  You can go in both directions with this.  You can say that the fact of human sexual polarity and complementary points to God as a community of persons, and you can say that God as a community of persons creates humankind in his own image as a community of persons. As the second creation story in Genesis 2 says, adam is not meant to be alone.  It is not good to be a self-contained organism which proceeds to develop itself.  In order to develop and mature, we must have a partner, a companion, a “thou” to relate to my “I.” 

Usually “I” and “thou” find expression in the marriage of a man and a woman.  That’s not the only kind of relationship in which complementary and community can be experienced, but it is the most fundamental one.  Yet even marriage can fail to attain its God-given potential if the couple lives only for each other. There are a lot of things people can enjoy with each other: in no particular order there’s work and vacation trips, music and art, sports and sex...and more. But in their love for each other, a couple does not reach their fulfillment when the two make their companionship an end in itself and are just taken up with each other.  Marriage doesn’t exist just for its own sake; it also exists for the sake of others, including for the sake of children.  The blessing of God on marriage is found in the command, “be fruitful and multiply.”  And if the gift of children is denied through no fault of the couple, God sends other blessings and gives other responsibilities; for God is always the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

If marriage is in trouble today as an institution (and it is in the Western world, especially in Europe where fewer and fewer couples want to get married and have children or they have children but don’t want to get married), it is because we continue to be more focused on "me" than on "community". We’re more concerned with what I want, and what I desire, what I think I deserve, what I am afraid of, than with what is best for my partner, my family, my city, my nation, my world. While there may have been one generation called the "me" generation, the truth is that every generation is the "me" generation—from Adam and Eve on. Marriages stumble and crumble over issues of "me" over against "you". Families have difficulties and dissolve over issues of "me" over against "you". Conflicts at work, tensions in neighborhoods, gang violence, hatred and intolerance between races, wars between nations, all get their start with issues of "me" over against "you." That’s what we’re experiencing in our nation now with an intensity I’ve not known in my seventy-four years. How will this divisiveness ever be reconciled? If “me” over against “you” has been with us since the beginning, what hope is there of ever overcoming these tensions and conflicts?

Our hope, of course, is in Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Our hope is that as we sinners are reconciled with the Holy God through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we will be reconciled and restored to our brothers and sisters as well — so that through the cross of Christ humanity will be gathered into one, to live in peace with God, with others, and with the creation of which we are a part.  Medieval images of the Trinity depict the bearded Father holding up the crucified Son with the dove of the Spirit as the bond between them.  It is worth noting that devotion to the Trinity, which resulted in the establishment of Trinity Sunday as a universal festival, emerged during a time of plague and warfare, of suffering and death. It’s like people needed the fullness of God to cope with the brutality of life.

 

Pope Benedict XVI, who as Joseph Ratzinger was truly one of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, writes that the answer to this "me" against "you" or "I" against "Thou" is the Trinity, "that ultimate unity in which the distinction between I and Thou is not withdrawn, but joined to each other in the Holy Spirit. In God there are three Persons, and so God is precisely the realization of ultimate unity. God did not create an individual person so that he might be dissolved but so that he might open himself in his entire height and in his innermost depth — so that the Holy Spirit embraces the individual person and is the unity of the divided persons." In practical terms, says Pope Benedict, "the Church in the deepest part of her nature, is the overcoming of the boundary between I and Thou — the union of all persons among themselves, through the radical transcendence of self, into eternal love.”

The Church is humankind being brought into the life of the Holy Trinity through word and sacrament.  For this reason Jesus sends us forth to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus has commanded.  In entering into the life of the Holy Trinity through Baptism, our "me" against "you" is replaced with Holy Communion—a relationship with God and others that transcends our self‑centeredness and is fused into that new creation that is called the Body of Christ. This new relationship requires truly a death of the old me-centered Adam in Baptism, so that, as St. Paul writes, it will now be not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. How does Christ live in me and in us together except by eating and drinking, ingesting and digesting the divine Godhead, present for us in the earthly gifts of bread and wine which we received in faith as the Body and Blood of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Holy Communion we together, every Sabbath Lord’s Day, turn away from evil in the world – the world reverting to chaos – and face toward God, taking our places at the table of God’s kingdom where there is always room for one more.  Amen. – Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS, Evanston, IL

June 4, The Day of Pentecost

Kristin White

The Day of Pentecost – June 4, 2017

In the forward to a collection of her sermons, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes of her wish that she had been called to some other vocation. “All it takes is one day’s headlines to make me wish I had gone into a more practical line of work,” she writes. “I would like to know how to close a wound or set a bone. I would like to land an airplane full of rice and chickens in the Sudan…But no, I am a preacher – a public speaker of the gospel – and the story is all I have.”[1]

The headlines of these past days – from teenagers leaving a concert in Manchester, to Coptic Christians on a bus in Egypt; from three men trying to protect girls on a MAX train in Portland, to people walking on London Bridge, which must have felt like it was falling down – well. I do not share the same wish as Barbara Brown Taylor, because I have never wanted to do anything more than the vocation to which I am called, right here with you. But I will confess my desire for some good old fashioned deliverance from what feels like a siege on our world and on our souls. I will confess my desire for God to step right in, Old Testament style, in the language of the psalms, with some smiting of evil and terror and general meanness; with some – God help us – protecting of what is innocent and beautiful.

I have joked (not joking) on occasion about wanting some of those Wonder Woman bracelets that can deflect bullets and swords and all manner of bad things. And I have to tell you, as Grace and I sat in the theater yesterday watching that movie, my desire for those bracelets has not lessened. And my wish for a superhero God who puts things right, who delivers us out of so much that is wrong…well, that wish has not lessened either.

I don’t know what kind of God the disciples wish for when they lock themselves away in that upper room, but I can only imagine they are hoping for some kind of deliverance, some kind of protection, some kind of escape from so much that is wrong.

God does show up, but those disciples don’t get delivered anywhere after that crazy moment of Pentecost.

They are locked away, out of fear that what happened to Jesus is going to happen to them. And God blows into that room with wind and fire. God the Holy Spirit lands on them, bestowing the sevenfold gifts that the prophet Isaiah promised: wisdom and understanding, counsel and courage, knowledge and reverence and wonder.

The disciples speak words they don’t know, confusing the people who do speak those languages, because they know the disciples aren’t native, aren’t fluent. The people hear and understand and are confused by their understanding…so they chalk it up to new wine. Except that it’s only 9:00 in the morning.

Even after all that, though, the disciples still don’t go anywhere.

A crowd of people hears Peter proclaim the faith, hears him connect the works of Jesus to the promises of David, the father of the faith. They hear and are converted and baptized. They continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.

They go on to become a community, those earliest Christians (who didn’t even call themselves that, yet). They share their gifts, they help and heal each other; they fight over money and food, they experience signs and wonders; they screw it up, and then reconcile and begin again. Through it all, they would have to use the gifts that the Holy Spirit had kindled within them: wisdom and understanding, counsel and courage, knowledge and reverence and wonder. They have to use those gifts, and share them, or they wouldn’t have made it.

Here’s what did not happen, though: they didn’t have a superhero God step in to smite the bad guys and scoop up the good ones, to deliver them from everything that is terrifying and tragic.

The disciples are still plagued by attacks from without, by fighting within.

When Jesus shows up in the gospel of John, he doesn’t carry the disciples away to safety. He doesn’t take them out of the hostile city where they are hiding, doesn’t build impenetrable walls around the house that holds them. Instead, he breathes the Holy Spirit into them, and sends them out into that very city, to face what will be. “As the Father sent me,” he says, “So I send you.”

Paul writes to the church at Corinth in our second reading today, a community that is fighting and stumbling its way toward becoming church. Paul names their charge: “You have gifts that come from God, to be shared for the good of everyone,” he writes. “Wisdom and knowledge, healing and the working of miracles, prophecy and discernment.”

“We are baptized into one Body. We are many members, in Christ.”

The Holy Spirit does not blow into that gathering of scared and heartbroken people on the day of Pentecost to carry them all away. Instead, the Holy Spirit gives those scared and heartbroken disciples gifts that allow them to stay put right where they are. The Spirit gives the promise of the Paraclete: the promise to come alongside, to abide through it all. And because the disciples receive those gifts, because they allow themselves to be sent into the very spaces that terrify them, they become agents of miracles themselves.

Sometimes the stories of the bible feel so far removed that they become almost caricature. We know how it turns out, right? Noah’s boat is finally going to hit the shore. The Israelites will be able to get through the Red Sea on dry land…and Pharaoh’s soldiers will not. The wise men will go home by another way. On that third morning, the stone will be rolled away from the tomb.

I don’t tend to feel the same immediacy with scripture that I do with the headlines. After all, I know, now, what it’s like to be on a bus in the Middle East with 40 people on our way to a monastery. I have ridden the MAX train in Portland many times. I have taken my daughter to a concert. I have walked on a bridge on a crowded summer evening.

That was then, I want to say, and this is happening right now. And we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And what about those Wonder Woman bracelets?

And.

And we worship a God who is faithful.

---

“As the Father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” Paul writes.

My friends, the story may be all we have, but the story is everything. Because the story is promise. And the Promise of Pentecost is not deliverance from, but accompaniment with. Those disciples don’t go anywhere when God the Holy Spirit blows and blazes into their midst. They stay put, and God works through them to build the beautiful and broken Church that abides, even now. They stay put, and God equips them and stays with them through it all.

The Promise of Pentecost is not that we will not suffer, or that God will magically deflect every obstacle…bracelets or not. The Promise of Pentecost is that God equips us with good gifts that allow us to stay put: even and especially when we’re afraid. It’s the promise that “in the Holy Spirit, God comes to us to be with us and for us, to use all that we have and (all that we) are”[2] because God so loves the world.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. Gospel Medicine. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995. xi.

[2] Thanks to David Lose for this essay that set the frame for my sermon, in addition to the quote http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/pentecost-a-with-not-from/

May 28, The Ascension of our Lord

Pastor Frank C. Senn

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

            Goodbyes are never easy. I’m coming up to the fourth anniversary of my retirement from active pastoral ministry and resignation of the pastoral office at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston. I wanted to give the congregation time to digest the fact that I would no longer be their pastor and give the parish leadership time to prepare for the transition to an interim situation.  So I announced my retirement at the annual meeting of the congregation in January, and set the official date as of the end of June. Then over the next five months we had the last this and the last that. Finally, we had the really last day, and since Mary and I were not moving away from Evanston I took off to Singapore to teach in a seminary there to completely get out of their sight.

I think the story Luke tells at the beginning of the sequel to his Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, served the same purpose. It was a dramatic way for Jesus to impress on his disciples that he would no longer be among them in the way they were used to relating to him. This story of Jesus’ ascension belongs to Luke. You won’t find it in the gospels. It’s entirely Luke’s story, and the church built a festival on it, just as we built a festival on Luke’s story of the Nativity of Jesus.

            I think a case can be made that Jesus’ ascension---his return to the Father in heaven---took place on the day of his resurrection. In the resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, once she recognizes him, not to cling to him because he has not yet ascended. And then he commissions her to go the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Note: Jesus didn’t tell Mary Magdalene to tell the others that he had risen from the dead but that he has ascended to God.  

So in John’s Gospel the resurrection and ascension seem to occur on the same day. Yet we know that Jesus appeared to the apostles that evening and again eight days later when so-called “doubting” Thomas was with them and again along the seashore in Galilee where he has breakfast waiting for the fishermen disciples. So where had Jesus been when he’s not appearing to disciples? Presumably in heaven, which I think we may imagine as another dimension rather than some place up in the sky.

            I think we see the same thing in Luke’s Gospel, the end of which we heard proclaimed today. The myrrh-bearing women go to the tomb early on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion to prepare his body for a proper burial. They find the tomb empty. Two men in dazzling clothes tell them that he has risen. Then that afternoon Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explains about himself as prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is finally recognized at the supper table when he breaks bread and says the blessing. Those two immediately run back to Jerusalem and tell the others. But suddenly Jesus appears among them all in the room and eats in their presence to prove he wasn’t a ghost.

At this point our Gospel reading for today begins. Jesus explains that everything he has done has been to fulfill the Scriptures and he commissions these disciples to be his witnesses to the nations. But they are to wait in the city until they are clothed with power from on high---the Holy Spirit. Then he leads them out as far as Bethany, blesses them, and withdraws into heaven. If we didn’t have the sequel to this Gospel, we would think, as in John’s Gospel, that Jesus’ ascension occurred on that event-filled day of resurrection.

But we do have the sequel. Luke tells Theophilus and his other readers that Jesus appeared to the disciples “during forty days” (a good biblical number) “speaking about the kingdom of God.” Then, while they’re still thinking that it’s about the restored kingdom of Israel (even this late they don’t seem to “get it”), Jesus departs from them. And they stand there with their mouths open gazing up at the sky. Is that it? Is Jesus finally gone?  Is that what this story is about: showing the disciples that they shouldn’t expect to see him any more the way they were used to seeing him?

When I left Immanuel and went to Singapore, was I gone for good from Immanuel? Not quite, because I was invited back to the congregation’s 125th anniversary banquet in the fall. Was Jesus totally gone from the disciples and from the earth? Not quite, because in the 9th chapter of Acts he appeared to Saul the Pharisee and converted him into Paul the Apostle to the gentiles. Well, he needed to have someone who would get his gospel to the nations.

So we wonder: why does Luke tell us this ascension story at all? Leave-takings can be rather depressing if you think you won’t see that person again. Last Sunday I attended the monthly Bach Cantata Vespers at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, where I am technically a member. It was an observance of the Ascension of our Lord, which was actually this past Thursday in the liturgical calendar---forty days after Easter Day, according to Luke’s chronology. The choir sang a stirring setting of Psalm 47 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Psalm 47, which we sang this morning, is a royal enthronement psalm and it has been applied spiritually to Jesus ascending to the throne of God. Vaughn Williams’ setting of the words “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” with choir, organ, brass, and timpani would have shaken the roof of Westminster Abbey as it did at Grace Lutheran. Then came Bach’s Ascension Oratorio after the Gospel reading, also with full orchestra including brass and timpani, and it was something of a let-down.  Because while there were brassy praise choruses sung by the choir, right in the midst of the biblical story Bach had the alto singing (in German),

Ah, remain still, my dearest life,

Ah, do not flee so soon from me!

Your departure and your early leaving

Bring me the greatest suffering.

Ah, do then remain still here;

Otherwise I shall be quite beset by grief.

With these pietistic words Bach brings in the human reaction to Jesus’ departure. He sees in the ascension story a narrative that has become very familiar in our modern age: the one about a God who is deliberately distant from those who need him, and who seems to have abandoned his people to their own inner resources, as if no Holy Spirit has been sent, as if we each of us must now invent our own spirituality, our own morality, our own religious practices, as if there’s nothing set down in the gospels and two millennia of tradition to draw upon?

I think it’s important to recognize the legitimacy of the experience from which this lament arises. Many people do feel that Christ has indeed left the stage. A Catholic friend once told me that she had stopped going to church because of the abuse of children by the priests. She couldn’t understand how a Church full of the Spirit of Christ could allow such a thing. For her, any residual sense of Christ’s presence in the world has now disappeared. And who can blame her, or any of the victims of abuse, for seeing things that way?

Yet, this morning I would bear witness to another way of reading the Ascension story, another way of understanding why Jesus departed from his disciples and from the earth. For there is a bigger story here in Luke’s account, and I believe that if we can only allow ourselves this enlarged vista, then even the very real “fact” and “experience” of divine abandonment will turn out to be something other than what it appears to be.

And it is this: yes, by virtue of his Ascension into heaven, Christ is indeed no longer present as a particular human being who occupies and is limited by a particular place and time.  But he is nevertheless, also by virtue of the Ascension, more abundantly present and active than he had ever been before. And this not as some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, Christ remains present in a material body: in the Eucharist.

In Jesus the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, God has a body. And that body shares in Christ’s divine nature, which includes omnipresence. God still relates to us body to body in the body of Christ. And that body of Christ is present wherever the words of Christ are proclaimed: “This is my body.” This is me.

In the bread and the wine we receive the body and blood of Christ according to his word. In a kind of spiritual biochemistry we take his body and blood into our bodies. This can be a more intimate and a more saturating presence than we experience with another human being occupying a space next to us.

Robert Orsi, professor of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has chronicled case studies of victims of priestly abuse in his recently-published book, History and Presence. He calls what happened to these victims “events of abundant evil.” Yet many of these victims continue to come to church and receive the Host, the sacramental body of Christ, from the hand of a priest, even though they may have suffered abuse at the hands of a priest. Believing that this bread is the body of Christ, perhaps they have a sense that ingesting the body of Christ gives honor to their dishonored bodies.  This was a feeling I had when I was a young adolescent receiving first Communion at a time in my life when I had all sorts of young adolescent body issues. I wasn’t feeling very good about my body when I was thirteen going on fourteen, but I had been catechized to believe that Christ’s body and blood is really present in the bread and wine and if his holy body was coming into my body, then my body was honored by his presence.

Moreover, we share the same spiritual biochemistry with all others who receive the body and blood of Christ from the same bread and cup.  If we receive this sacrament we are bodily in union with Christ and with one another. The church becomes the interpersonal body of Christ. Working through the means of grace, the word and the sacraments, the Spirit whose coming we celebrate next Sunday makes the Church the body of Christ in the world, so infusing and shaping its life and work that the mission of Jesus continues in the Church as a real and tangible Christ-presence for the whole world.

And in the meantime, it’s good for us who have to live in the meantime to know that Christ has indeed taken his place at God’s right hand – the position of clout, we would say --, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”  God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church, which is his body. Eastern Orthodox worshipers are reminded of this every time they enter their church building and see the icon of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of all things, in the apse or in the dome overhead gathering all his people under his rule.

Christ abides with us in the bread broken and the wine poured out for the life of the world; in the Scriptures read and preached; and in the stranger, the widow and the orphan we are called to meet in our ministries of care. Christ has indeed ascended to the Father…so that he can be present everywhere and to everyone now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Pastor Frank C. Senn