The readings this morning as well as where we are in the liturgical season run up against one of those hard places in life - those in-between places. Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension and next Sunday is Pentecost. Easter is over and we will begin the long season of ordinary time soon.
The Gospel lesson this morning is from the middle of Jesus’ long “Farewell Discourse” just prior to the arrest of Jesus. This is unique to John’s version of the story. Jesus prayed a really long prayer to God the father on behalf of his followers and asked God to watch over his flock while he was away. There is no detailed depiction of the Ascension later, after all the passion and resurrection part of the story, not in John. But here, if you pay attention is the brief mention of his ascension in verse 11.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
Some scholars suggest that this scene played out in John’s gospel with Jesus praying this long sermonic prayer as he ascended. Classic paintings of the scene have Jesus floating in the air preaching this prayer.
I wish I could do that! Wouldn’t that be cool? If I could float while preaching you might be a bit distracted though. And, well, only Jesus Ascended. (Unless you believe that some of the saints also ascended but that’s for another lesson.)
The disciples must have been amazed during these 40 days from the resurrection until the Ascension. And then amazed again when the Holy Spirit, as promised, showed up and blew their minds on the 50th day after Easter. We’ll talk more about that next week.
But I imagine the disciples confused and struggling during these times. The days following the crucifixion left them bereft. Their Lord was dead, executed as a common criminal. They were too dumb struck to imagine his return. They tried to go back to fishing but they were sad and grieving.
Then Jesus showed up on the beach one day and they cooked breakfast together on an open fire. This must have been very exciting. They must have thought at that point that everything was now fixed and they could go back to normal and then he left them again. Jesus Ascended into heaven at what seems to be the end of the story - or is it the beginning?
Either way. Today we are in one of those in-between places.
In-between places are hard. These are those times in life when we must wait, sometimes endure long periods of waiting until we can feel joyful again. Some people place all their angst about this by planning ahead, like starting your Christmas shopping for next year right after New Years. Or, like stoking up the garage with lots of supplies for when the bombs finally fall. Or, like a miser who gets so caught up in focusing on saving for a rainy day that he lives in the extreme - a life of poverty.
Others live in the past, living their days full of shame and regret that things didn’t turn out how they had hoped.
But rather than living in the future or the past, we must realize that we too live in an in-between time. We live between the time when Jesus walked the earth and the time when he will return. And we do this by celebrating the cadence of a liturgical calendar. Each cycle of the seasons we go through the story of Jesus beginning not with his birth but with waiting for him to come to us. That’s what Advent is about, or supposed to be about, when we can discipline ourselves to hold off on Christmas for the first three weeks of December. Then we end up here, after Easter is over, waiting again.
What are you waiting for? Are we so caught up in saving for a rainy day that we are not living out the call of being the Church?
Well, in the face of this rather dreadful image, I’m going to do something crazy and tell you a children’s story. It’s my favorite A. A. Milne story. I really love this story. It’s the one when Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet went for a walk on a winter morning. It goes like this:
Winnie the Pooh went for a walk one winter morning. Piglet saw him from a ways off while sweeping the snow from his front stoop and decided to join him. Pooh Bear seemed to be walking in circles and Piglet was curious to see what he was up to, maybe, even if it was hunting Woozles.
Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?” asked Piglet.
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “Now, look there.” He pointed to the ground in front of him. “What do you see there?”
“Tracks, Paw-marks” said Piglet, with a jump. And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.”
The two went on from there around a spinney of trees until they came upon another set of tracks. With increasing anxiety and excitement, they ventured on discussing at first the possibility they might be tracking “Hostile Animals” and then later they talked about trivial things to distract themselves from fear. Around they went twice more finding more tracks each time. When they came upon a fourth set of tracks Piglet couldn’t take it anymore and invented a lovely reason for returning to his home saying he just remembered something he forgot to do and just then, Pooh heard a noise above them, someone whistling.
He looked to the sky and saw none other than Christopher Robin sitting in the branches of a big oak-tree above them. Their dear friend came down from the tree and comforted them with merely his presence while Pooh tried to explain why he and Piglet were walking in circles around the tree examining their own tracks in the snow.
I’ll come back to why I love that story.
Here’s a quote I ran into this week:
“The mark of a great church is not how many people come, but how many people live differently for having been there.”
Today’s readings, to me, are about what it means to be the Church. We break up, as in the loss of Judas the betrayer, and then we make up, as the early church did when they called Mathias, and then we wait. It is our pattern. Round and round we go.
I was looking at the pictures of all my predecessors on Thursday, out in the history room that comes in from the garden. I find I like to come and go that way just to enjoy the garden, especially this time of year. Kristie is working on printing and framing pictures of David and of me that will be hung out there soon. I stopped and stared at that wall the other day wondering how I fit in with all those guys - and Sue!
I was looking at all those priests and thinking about the big picture of their ministries. It was the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the trend was to lift up the laity and smooth out the hierarchy, there was also a value of focusing on our relationships, on love of each other in the church. The era of the last century in the church was a move from being taught, fed and sent by the priest to becoming a community of sojourners who teach and feed each other. We come to church on Sunday to commune - together - in prayer, and the sacraments. Then we go out and care for a hurting world.
So, in the early to mid-twentieth century, to be a part of all that love that was going around, folks were expected to attend services and Sunday School and youth group and Vacation Bible School and picnics and rummage sales. And so they did. We had lots of people coming here and to any church in any town. Church attendance was just the norm then. Of course, it could be because of all that love that was going around.
So, now we are facing a new era. Attendance is down. The church is aging, they say, to denote that the average age of those who attend regularly is going up. Many worry that the church is dying. Maybe in a way it is. It is headed to a new birth. Some say we should let go of our historic buildings and meet in coffee shops and libraries. Others say we just need to move beyond the establishment church and embrace the realities of the changes. Some just want to hang in there long enough for a younger priest to provide the Funeral Rites for those last few hang ons.
I think we are just in a good old fashioned in-between place. And in-between places are hard.
In our Lectionary Lunch group this week, we talked a lot about Judas. Judas is the most hated person who ever lived because he betrayed the Son of God. He is said to have died a horrible death, alone, and buried in a potters field - the field of blood and to this day he is said to dwell in the pit of hell.
Speaking of in-bewteen places, in our lesson from Acts this morning we skipped over a couple of verses. Did you notice that? Sometimes the lectionary readings do that. This is for several reasons, one is for focus and brevity, another is for focusing on themes. Some of our bible study group suggested it might be to spare little one’s from the gory stuff. These verses are gory stuff so brace yourselves. Here is what was skipped in our reading. It’s about Judas:
(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
Now that’s all background information about why they had to replace him. But there’s some hateful stuff right there in the Bible. Judas was really hated and said to deserve what he got.
But other’s have wondered if maybe that’s not the case. I know, we can’t really question scripture, but I’ve often struggled with the hatred of Judas. I mean, we were taught by our Lord to forgive and love our enemies. Scholars have pondered throughout the history of the church about Judas - he was used by God, his part had to be played, he was a fated character in the passion story. Without him, it could not have happened. And it had to happen the way it happened.
This is one of the great theological questions that is answered only with mystery. We really don’t know what happened to Judas in the after life. But, are we really meant to hate him? If we are, then who else should we hate?
Should we hate those who are alive today who seem to betray Jesus? Should we hate those who persecute the church? Ignore the Church, betray us?
Well, I don’t think the good people of Grace parish think this way. One of the other questions that came up in our Bible study on Wednesday was why the disciples had to stick with 12. Why did they have to choose just one in this run off of drawing straws over Mathias or Justus? Why couldn’t they let both of them in?
This comes from our Christian hearts, the same hearts who want to include everyone in the banquet.
Well, this must seem like a slide show so far. I find myself trying to explain a big theological word - Ecclesiology - which is the study of the Church. I want to define for us what the church is, and what belonging to the church means. That’s a pretty big thing to take on so no wonder I am all over the place here.
In my preparation for this sermon I ran into Flannery O’Connor. She said this:
"The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it." [The Habit of Being, Letters]
In honor of Mother’s Day listen to this story. It is about a mother, my mother, caring for her brood the best she could. I have three older brothers. I sometime wonder how Mom survived those early years with three little boys running around. The stories she tells about some of the mischief are jaw dropping!
One story was of when the oldest two were in the back seat. Mom was driving home. We lived behind our church. The boys were fighting and Mom threatened to make them get out of the car and walk home. They were only about 4 and 6! They didn’t believe her and went on fighting. When she got to the front of the church she pulled over and put the care in gear and told them to get out and walk. She lectured them that they would have to walk until they could learn to behave in the car. When she tells this story she remembers with awe the terrified little faces looking back at her. They got out and started walking. She drove slowly away, but not really out of sight. She watched them make their way through the church yard and through our yard and home. The favorite line from the story is when little Ricky, the younger, called out after his big brother, Randy who had walked quickly and gotten ahead of him, “Wandy! Wandy! Wait!”
We love this story in my family.
How is that a metaphor for the Church?
Well, Mother Church can sometimes seem pretty tough. Sometimes we feel exiled, sometimes we feel abandoned, and sometimes we want to kick the ones who are fighting children off the bus. These in-between places are hard.
Now let me tell you why I love that old Winnie-the-Pooh story.
I guess I love these stories because they are part of my childhood, but there is more to it than that. Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends make up the most mix-matched gang of staunch individuals I had ever met - well -until I met the parishes of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia!
But think about it, here we have a tiger, a rabbit and a donkey communing together. There’s a bear, a young pig an owl and a kangaroo and her baby. And they all live happily in the same climate! A cold climate! If that’s not the best image of the melting pot the church is - or should be- I don’t know what is!
I love how this diverse community comes together again, and again to support and love each other during times of adversity, fear and sadness. But mostly, I love this story of two friends who get lost in the snow, end up afraid of their own tracks and talk themselves nearly into panic when their leader, Christopher Robin, who has the very name Christ in his name, comes down from a tree and comforts and leads them.
The Church is not lost nor are we not lead by the Holy Spirit, if we listen. Most of all we are not dying. We are merely changing and turning and living into these in-between days as we always have.