He Ascended into Heaven

The Ascension of Christ is one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith, and it is in Christ’s Ascension that we simultaneously remember his Passion, death, decent into Hell, as well as his resurrection. Let’s move through each of these mysteries one-by-one with the hope of finding and remembering the greatest mystery of all – that God so loved the world that he gave and continues to give.

The Ascension first calls to mind Jesus’ Passion and eventual death on the cross. It is in the Passion where Jesus offered his whole self – body and spirit – as an oblation. Through the loss of dignity, Jesus took on humility as flesh and blood were stripped away, beaten, disregarded, and left for dead. It was on the cross where even Jesus’ divinity was emptied out. It was in this state of rejection that ordinary words could not capture; therefore, Jesus choose poetry with his last breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22).

The Ascension then calls to mind Jesus’ decent into Hell. If the cross was the place where body and spirit were given for the present, it was in Hell where this offering was extended back into the past. God’s decent into Hell reminds the faithful that there is no place in which God will not go. God cares about our past, our present, and our future. It is the future and at the same time the past where Christ’s resurrection and ascension are made present. The reality of the resurrection is that we are invited to live into it. We are to participate in the risen life of Jesus Christ. Fr. Thomas Keating has stated that the reality of the ascension “is the triumphant faith that believes that God’s will is being done no matter what happens. It believes that creation is already glorified, though in a hidden manner, as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.”[1]Keating continues this line of theological thinking in his book, The Mystery of Christ,

The grace of the Ascension enables us to perceive the irresistible power of the Spirit transforming everything into Christ despite any and all appearances to the contrary. In the misery of the ghetto, the battlefield, the concentration camp; in the family torn by dissension; in the loneliness of the orphanage, old-age home, or hospital ward – whatever we see that seems to be disintegrating into grosser forms of evil – the light of the Ascension is burning with irresistible power. This is one of the greatest intuitions of faith. This faith finds Christ not only in the beauty of nature, art, human friendship and the service of others, but also in the malice and injustice of people or institutions, and in the inexplicable suffering of the innocent. Even there it finds the same infinite love expressing the hunger of God for humanity, a hunger that [God] intends to satisfy.”[2]

Keating concludes with these words,

Thus, in Colossians, Paul does not hesitate to cry out with his triumphant faith in the Ascension: “Christ is all and in all”[3]– meaning now, not just in the future. At this very moment we too have the grace to see Christ’s light shining in our hearts, to feel his absorbing Presence within us, and to perceive in every created thing – even in the most disconcerting – the presence of his light, love, and glory.”[4]

Perhaps I can offer my own phase and summation to Keating’s beautiful words: Perhaps what Keating is trying to get across is that God has not given up on us. God has not given up on me. God has not given up on you. There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God, and it is in the Ascension of Jesus Christ where past and future are made present in an eternal act of love.

After Christ’s Ascension, St. Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). When we worship joyfully we are participating with all God’s glorified creation even “as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.” [5]This week follow in the disciples’ footsteps and intuit the joy of the Ascension in your worship, in your work, and in your lives. Seek out the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love in all aspects of being; and finally, remember love found its way into the world through oblation. Live into all these things and there will be joy in your life; joy in the Ascension; joy in all the earth.

[1]               Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience (The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 2003) Copyright: St. Benedict’s Monastery, 1987. Pages, 86 – 88.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Colossians 3:11

[4]               Ibid., Keating.

[5]               Ibid.

Relationship Makes Us Strong

**Sermon delivered on the Feast of Lady Julian, 2018 Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of  St. Julian’s Episcopal Church as a Parish**

For 40 years, Jesus is the one who has been speaking to us as an Episcopal worshipping community in Douglas County. Many of you know we were not always called St. Julian’s. We were once St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. Those of you who pray Morning Prayer know that there is an optional collect at the end of Morning Prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom. One of the lines taken from A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (BCP, 102) is this, “You [God] have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…” At the heart of this prayer is relationship. At the heart of this parish (no matter its name) is relationship – relationship to God who speaks to us as we listen, and our relationships one to another as we listen andrespond to God’s Spirit working within us.

Tonight, I’d like to look at three different questions. These are questions that I have answered myself about this parish community, but I am only one person. You undoubtedly will answer them another way. I invite you, therefore, to take these questions seriously, and like the above Collect referred to it is my hope that these questions (and your answers) will be discussed at coffee hours, Vestry meetings, and the various ministries, committees, and counsels throughout this year. Here are the questions,[1]then we will go through them one-by-one:

Question 1: Who are we?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Question 3: Who is our neighbor.

Question 1: Who are we?

In order to fully answer this question, I believe we have to go way back (like 2,000 years way back). If we do this, we will find that we were started because of God’s relationship to God’s very self expressed theologically as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Out of this self-love came a self-giving love and the relationship of Father to the Son and to the Spirit poured out into the universe and God became man. God entered into a fleshy relationship with us. God gathered around him disciples who served him, and towards the end of their time together were no longer referred to as servants but as friends. These friends continued the relationship with God through his resurrection, and eventually in a different way – through God, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into all aspects of these friends of God eventually forming the Church of Jesus Christ. That Church is still alive today. That Church is still in relationship with God in very tangible ways through the gifts God has given us, and it is these gifts that he gives to his friends (water, wine, bread) that empowers us to invite others to receive these gifts of God taking on new friends, new acquaintances, new relationships. This is all expressed succinctly in the Nicene Creed when it states that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. So, who is St. Julian’s Church? That one. (That church).

I chose to answer the first question ontologically; in other words, I wanted to describe how we have our being in the world by virtue of the relationship we have with God. Who we are are persons in relationship. These relationships give us purpose. Purpose leads to mission. This is expressed weekly in the post-communion prayer: “And now, Father [there’s the relationship] send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is the work of relationship one has with God, with self, and with one another. The work is also to invite others into that relationship, not as a witness to the self (or extensions of the self), but as a witness to something greater than the self – a witness to Christ our Lord. So what does this theology look like in the context of this parish? The specifics can be answered in the next question: What has God called us to do?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Since the MAP committee is currently looking at the Mission Statement of St. Julian’s parish, I’m going to use the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Purpose Statement to help me answer the question: What has God called us to do? The Purpose Statement of the diocese is this: “We challenge ourselves, and the world, to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.”

At St. Julian’s we worship in a variety of ways. As Episcopalians we have a prayer book spirituality. We worship with Holy Eucharist each Sunday, morning prayer during some Sundays during the summer, evening prayer a few times a year, Advent Lessons and Carols, Red Letter days on Wednesdays when applicable, and healing services and Holy Communion here and at the Benton House once a month. Many of you say one or more of the Offices daily – morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Our adult choir program is large and in charge. I believe our Christmas, Holy Week and Easter services to be beautiful, meaningful, and joyful to many. The longer I am with you, the more I see that our worship has the potential to experiment in a variety of directions. We’ve tried Rite I during Lent this year. We occasionally bring out the smells and bells. We also are blessed to have parishioners who grew up in the Anglican church in Africa, Haiti, and the Caribbean. I wonder what traditions we can bring into our worship from these liturgical and musical expressions of the faith. I hope you will wonder with me.

We not only challenge ourselves to worship joyfully but to also serve compassionately. For 20 years this parish has supported (in thought, word, and deed) the Starting Over program that meets here every Thursday and Saturday. Starting Over is a court appointed visitation program that not only puts us in relationship with the larger community, but also calls our attention to injustices that can happen in the family unit itself. Starting Over promotes justice through a supportive environment, first to the children who are “the least of these” within these scenarios and has now began (recently) to support the supporters – those who are on the ground working with the families. Many on the Starting Over board took a day last month to take donuts to the DFCS offices of Douglas County to show this support. This act was a ministry of presence, and the beginning of new relationships.

God has also called us to serve hungry children. The Backpack Ministry here at the parish continues to serve Annette Wynn Elementary each week, and whether you give a check, drop off food in the narthex, pack the backpacks or deliver them, you are serving Christ in very tangible ways through the unseen blessings this ministry allows.

This year, the St. Julian’s Youth wanted to “serve compassionately” through another ministry of presence with our homeless population here in the county. You helped the youth and their leaders live into this ministry by giving life essentials to the men and women who live in our county in different ways than most of us are used to. It was without judgment that you and the youth shared what you had as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

For a parish of this size, it is my hope that we will continue to support these three ministries of outreach by striving for excellence in how we serve as well as continuing to build relationships – which leads me to my final question: Who is Our Neighbor?

Question 3: Who is Our Neighbor

Two out of the three outreach ministries identified children as our neighbors – Starting Over and the Backpack ministry. But watch this: In the Fall, St. Julian’s will be starting the Godly Play ministry on Sunday mornings – also a children’s ministry. I think something is going on in the life of the parish with this latest move. Let me explain: We’ve already talked about the challenges in the purpose statement about worshipping joyfully and serving compassionately. What we left off and now what I’d like to discuss is the last one – to grow spiritually. It is this last piece that I believe answers the immediate future of St. Julian’s and the question, “What has God called us to do?” I believe God has called St. Julian’s to grow spiritually, and we are living into this calling by taking on the Godly Play ministry. Godly Play invites both children and adults to take part in God’s story. We are invited into the stories of old and at the same time learning how to find God in our own stories out and about in our lives. God wants to be in relationship with us in all aspects of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings, but Monday through Saturday, sacred and profane, the good the bad and the ugly. There is a sense of pride in this community that we reach out to the least of these through Starting Over and The Backpack Ministry. Now, the least of these are reaching back to us. Our children our teaching us how to grow spiritually. Our children are leading. Our children are pointing out the kingdom of God, are calling us to pray and play and in doing so we live out God’s mission, we grow deeper in our relationship with God and one another. We worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually with the song and sense of childlike wonder.

If you can get behind me and see that the future of St. Julian’s relies on a parish environment that wants to grow spiritually, then this will touch every aspect of our communal life together. Again, it’s already happening. The youth wanted the serve the homeless. Two young families wanted to start a Godly Play ministry. I wonder what else God is calling us to do? Perhaps it’s to take a look at our various ministries and meetings and to always begin and end with prayer, a Bible study, or a devotional. Perhaps it’s not doing business as usual, but being about and wondering about God the Father’s business, Christ’s ministry and mission, the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s not just asking how you and yours are doing, but how’s your relationship with God? What’s your prayer life like? It’s asking for prayer. It’s wronging your neighbor, but then seeking out the peace of the Lord within the relationship.

Some of you may be saying, “Father Brandon, come on…we already do that.” Good. Tell me about it. Let me know. Let one another know how you are being faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. And know this: I’ll be modeling these questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor? Again, I gave you my answers but I want to know yours. I’ll start with your Vestry. On Tuesday, this is how the Vestry will begin (right after our opening prayer). We’ll have a discussion. The Beloved Community Book Group meets on Mondays. Vestry on Tuesday. Sisters of St. Julian’s, Choir, and Backpacks on Wednesday. Starting Over and Contemplative Outreach on Thursday. I invite all these ministries to have a discussion about these questions. How do you answer them? If you get a good discussion going, report back to me or Sam Hudson (Sr. Warden) or Terri Frazier (MAP chair).

Tonight, we went way back; and we didn’t go way back in a nostalgia-like way. We went way back in a God-centered relationship-like way. I caught us all up on some outreach ministries knowing full well I couldn’t speak on all the ministries this parish has had through the years or currently has even now. I brought us up to speed with how we currently worship joyfully, and serve compassionately, and how (I believe) God is calling us to grow spiritually now and in the future with the help of the children we serve as well as the children who serve us. We’re not St. Chrysostom’s anymore. We’re not even the St. Julian’s of old. No. We are a St. Julian’s who is singing new songs, serving with ministries of presence, and diving deeper into the ongoing relationship of God. Tonight, we remember our story and how it is wrapped up in God’s story. Tomorrow, may we keep the story and relationships moving with the Spirit and into the future.

 

 

[1]               These questions are from Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book, Holy Conversations (Alban, 2003). I was introduced to these questions through a seminar put on by Interim Ministry Network in May, 2018. The seminar was held at The Beecken Center in Montegale, TN and was titled, “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry-Work of the Leader”.

For Good

John 15:9-17

**Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.** 

In 1995, author Gregory Maquire published his novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The book contained an alternative plot to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later made famous by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. In Maquire’s telling of the land of Oz, the protagonist is not Dorothy Gale but Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda – the Good Witch. According the Wikipedia, “Wicked tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (whose name later changes to Glinda the Good Witch), who struggle through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest, reactions to the Wizard‘s corrupt government, and, ultimately, Elphaba’s public fall from grace.” If Baum’s novel was preserved by Hollywood, then Maquire’s novel was immortalized by Broadway for in 2003 it hit the world like a sonic boom winning 3 Tony’s and 6 Drama Desk Awards with the original cast receiving a Grammy.

Toward the end of the musical the song, For Good, plays out like a farewell discourse between Elphie and Glinda. One Wicked fan described the song For Goodlike this: “For Good” stands as one of the most iconic songs from Wicked… It stands as an anthem of forgiveness and also gratitude for the ways that other people can influence us and change our lives. Before the song starts, Elphaba gives Glinda the Grimmerie, a magic book of spells. Glinda says she does not know how to read it, but Elphaba trusts her to keep it safe. Although the song begins with a fight, Elphaba and Glinda come to forgive each other, sharing their final farewells. They ultimately wish each other well in their futures.” It’s a touching song because the audience knows the rest of the story – for the genius of both the novel and the musical is that we ultimately know what happened to both Glinda and Elphaba in the land of Oz. Hearing the song, one can’t help but think of how Dorothy Gale would one day stand in the middle of these two – two persons that were once friends. I’ll share the lyrics (and a link to the performance) to the song below, but first let me tell you a story.

When I was a hospital chaplain working in the Long Term Acute Care (LTAC) unit, many patients came to that unit in need organ transplants. Sometimes it was a lung. Other times it may have been a heart or a kidney. No matter what organ was needed, there was always the same sort of tension. The tension was in the waiting – a waiting game that was anything but tepid. The tension was sometimes spoken. Sometimes not. The reality that a physical part of someone else would have to be sacrificed for the benefit of their loved one whether by the death of a stranger (who was an organ donor) or matching a friend or family member for the donation – it did not matter. The tension was thick. Life required sacrifice. Sometimes it is partial. Sometimes it is fully present.

In 2007, this everyday hospital waiting game happened in an extraordinary way (here’s a link to the entire story). The Campbells of Horsehead, New York, had an 11 week-old son, Jake who was not going to make it. After a family consult with the hospital staff the Campbells made the hard decision of accepting the death of their son while at the same time wanting life for someone else to continue. Jake’s Mom, Holly, later reflected on that moment with these words, “Jake’s life was ending, but this does not have to be the end.”

Eight hundred miles away in Iowa, 2 week-old Beckham needed a heart. Because of Jake and his family’s sacrifice, Beckham got the heart he needed. These miraculous stories happen everyday, but this story did not end there. Several years later the families met one another, shared their stories, and the two Mom’s (Holly and Kim) realized they had something in common: They both loved the musical Wicked. Not only did they love the musical, but both unknowingly sang the song, “For Good” to their boys. Holly sang the song to Jake just before he died, and Kim sang the song to Beckham after he received his new heart. This beautiful story and reunion of Jake’s heart was told and retold at Golisano Children’s Hospital. To top it off, both Holly and Kim were able to sing the song, “For Good” at that gathering and in honor of their two very brave sons (again, here’s the link). As promised, here are the lyrics to the song (Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Performed below by: Kristen Chenoweth & Idina Menzel)

[Elphaba]
I’m limited
Just look at me
I’m limited
And just look at you
You can do all I couldn’t do

[Glinda]
So now it’s up to you
For both of us
Now it’s up to you

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I’ve been changed
For Good.

[Elphaba]
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend.

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you

[Glinda]
Because I knew you

[BOTH]
I have been changed
For good
______________________________________________

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.