Thursday, June 30, 2011

Just because it's good to remember this...

...and not because I'm trying to pick a fight...

this will be in the announcement sheet in our bulletin this Sunday.

How fortunate we are to live in our nation, which will celebrate its 235th birthday tomorrow! One of the great wisdoms of the founding fathers was their focus on religious tolerance, on keeping the control of religion out of the hands of secular government, and on keeping control of secular government out of the hands of religious leaders.

They had good reason for this. They knew, having seen the power of religion allied with government, how it could stifle efforts at reform and at theological discourse. Many of the first settlers came here precisely because they couldn’t live out their faith as they deeply understood it in the place from which they came. Nations that had an official “state church” sometimes compelled people to adhere to that church’s rules and contribute to that church. That is not what Jesus had in mind, in a statement that might be considered the first endorsement of separation of church and state: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” (Matt 22:21)

Jesus named the fact that mixing politics and religion is dangerous business. It is no surprise, then, that the unholy alliance between the Roman state and the sanctioned religious leadership of Israel led to his death. Such a marriage of church and state serves neither purely.

I’m grateful that our nation was built on an understanding that marriage of church and state is not a good idea. I’m grateful, too, that our decision-making process in government is usually informed by the values that each of us learned from parents and teachers and in Sunday Schools and in yeshivas and in other places of moral teaching of our choosing.

If we start from the place of understanding our moral values, then we don’t need to make a shotgun marriage between church and state. Wise decision making comes naturally, organically. So three cheers for the writers of the Constitution, and for the nation that continues to cherish its values!

I'll let you know what the reactions are, if any...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost, June 26, 2011 Gen 22:1-14 “A Worthy Sacrifice”

Abraham is headed up that mountain with his son Isaac, under orders from God to offer the boy, his beloved long-awaited son, as sacrifice.

There is a strange sparseness to the story. God tells Abraham what he must do – we know it is a test of Abraham’s faithfulness, although Abraham does not. There is no response, no argument, no anger. The old man, still strong, with sturdy legs and powerful arms, prepares for the task. He gathers up the live coal, wrapping it carefully to preserve its ember-heart so that it will light a fire on Mt Moriah. He throws the saddle over the donkey’s back – Abraham thinks for moment – how many donkeys have I owned over the years of my life? Ten, twenty? Will this be the last one doing my bidding as I am doing God’s bidding? He calls out to two of his men “walk with me – we have work to do on the mountain – El Adonai commands it.” He beckons to Isaac, a gawky spindly-legged boy of eleven, the curly-headed love of his life, his miracle boy, to come with them. The boy is excited, always glad to be invited by his father to participate in another adventure. He does not see the knife tucked in his father’s belt, but even if he had, he wouldn’t be frightened. His father always has the knife, to cut a sheep’s umbilical cord, to slice a rope, to slaughter a sacrificial animal. It is just another tool. They begin to hike to the mountain. They know it – they have grazed the sheep there before. It is green at the lower levels, where they take the sheep to graze. They reach the mountain and begin to scrabble up as Abraham directs them. There are some trees where they can sit and get some shade in the heat of the midday. Abraham has the men gather some branches, and he cuts them into short lengths. “For the sacrifice to El Adonai,” he gruffly says, as he ties the bundle of wood to Isaac’s back. The men stay put now, as Abraham and Isaac continue to ascend.

It is late in the afternoon now, and the climbing has become more difficult as they near the top of the mountain. It is not hot up here, and Isaac is glad they are now starting a fire for the sacrifice that might warm their bones as well. They are above the treeline, and there are only scrabbly bushes to cut the wind. A chill breeze sends a shiver down Isaac’s back, and suddenly he realizes that something is missing. Where is the animal to be slain and offered to Adonai? He turns to his father. “Where is the sheep, father?” “Adonai will provide it, my son.”

Isaac is puzzled. Isn’t the whole point of sacrificing to take something of your own and give it to Adonai? Why would Adonai provide the sheep? But now his father is approaching, and his face is grim. There is rope in his hand, and suddenly his father is wrapping the rope around him, tying his hands, whipping his feet together. What is this that is happening? Isaac is struggling, but his father is strong, and he cannot escape the ropes that now imprison him. He twists around and looks with panic into his father’s eyes, his father who now has the knife in his hand. Isaac has no words, but a small moan escapes his lips, and his father, his dear father who has loved him with a passion beyond imagining, is looking down on him as the boy arches his back in fear, and the tear that is rolling down the crevasse of his old and wrinkled cheek shines blood red in the reflected fire…Isaac knows that he is to die, that he is the sacrifice. The son of the patriarch, sacrificed on the fire. He thinks, “May my father’s hand be swift as it is with the sheep or the ram.”

He is on the verge of fainting, and he is ashamed to realize that he has soiled his breeches. All he can think of is how the knife will feel, how the coursing blood running down his neck will feel, or will he feel any of it at all? Why is his father doing this? Something inside him freezes and then breaks into a thousand icy crystals, and then melts away. Something is gone from him.

And in that moment, when he is sure he can feel the edge of the knife making the first slivering cut into his neck, it stops.

The boy hears a voice. It is not his father’s voice, nor is it the voice of the men who had come out on this march of death with them. It is not an earthly voice, but it is not the voice of Adonai as the boy had imagined it. Not deep and thundering, but steely…and yet there is a tenderness there. The voice says, “Stop it, Abraham. Go no further in this sacrifice. You have proven your faithfulness.” And the heat of his father’s hand and the steel of the knife are gone now, as his father turns around and lets his beautiful boy with the broken heart drop to the ground. There is a ram, bleating, caught in the nearby brush. His father grabs the animal with a fierce anger, savagely slashes its throat, and tosses the lifeless carcass onto the fire.

The boy thinks, “He is angry. Angry at me? Angry at the ram? Angry at Adonai?” His father, who has always loved him with a passion beyond description, is now a stranger to him. His abba, his daddy, whom he had always loved with the blissful assurance that his father would never forsake him, is now the one who stood ready to kill him, an alien to him. And yet the boy does not have the strength to be angry himself. No, he is merely cold and tired and broken and wants his mother. Did his mother know what was about to happen? Did she permit this? Can he ever trust her again?

His father mutters a few words of prayer over the now-smoldering remains of the ram, and reaches out his hand to help the boy up, to bring him back down the mountain. He looks at the boy with a glimmer of fear – does the boy hate him now? But all he sees is a dull, blank stare. The boy takes his hand to stand, shakily, then quickly drops it once he is upright. And his father, wordless, gestures to him to walk down the mountain.

They go down slowly, because the boy is a bit unsteady on his feet. The old man is, too. The sacrifice has taken as much trust out of the boy as it put into the old man, and they are shaken by that.

And then the voice returns, commending Abraham on his faithfulness, and awarding Abraham the gift of many offspring. An odd thing, that. Having proven that he is a father willing to sacrifice his son for his God, God gives him many more descendants. A cynical person would see only the irony and say Abraham was the least fit to father a mighty nation, given his behavior on the mountaintop, but we are followers of the same God, and we know that sometimes his commands are more painful and difficult to interpret than we would imagine a loving creator would demand.

Did Isaac have any words for his father as they tramped down the mountain? Did he ask his father why? Did he say, “I’ll never trust you again?” Or did he simply say nothing?

What do we know of Isaac after this event? We know that he remained unmarried until the age of forty, when his father arranged his marriage to Rebekah, through the good offices of an unnamed servant. We know when Rebekah first saw him, she fell off her camel…although some translations say she slipped down off the camel in a very genteel manner. But I like to think she was so blown away by his good looks that she fell off – after all, she invited him almost immediately into her tent…you can read between the lines.

Then we don’t hear much about Isaac until the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau, who had their share of ups and downs. Isaac, this son of Abraham, was the first seed of a mighty nation promised by God, and his story is short and full of sorrows…not what one would expect from such a lineage.

And yet, Isaac, the boy broken on the altar of his father’s faithfulness, still contributes to the great story. Even though his life is troubled, he still contributes, by virtue of his fatherhood to Jacob and Esau. Jacob, of course, was himself something of a problem child, but he was renamed “Israel” by God and was also promised in a dream that he would be the father of a great nation.

Perhaps the lesson here is that God uses these imperfect broken people to perfect a broken world. When Isaac came down from the mountain, I wonder if he had a question: what kind of God would demand love of God before love of his child? Could he follow such a God? I wonder if that was why he hadn’t married at the age of forty, making his father go find him a wife? Was love too untrustworthy for him? I wonder how that shaped his own vision of fatherhood when the twins were born? Were these two boys who wrestled even in the womb the ones who taught him the power of paternal love, so much so that he was willing to be duped by one of them at the end of his life? What kind of love would Isaac see in his own difficult family, and what kind of love would Isaac experience in this seemingly distant God? And yet, he kept turning back toward the God who, all those years ago, had been willing to demand the unthinkable from his father.

He realized at the end of his life, I think, that God never intended to see Abraham’s knife make the final cut. He understood at the end of his life that relationships are complicated, and love is rarely utterly pure between fathers and sons. He knew at the end of his life that you love the best you can, not as well as God loves – even the seemingly harsh God in today’s story – and that if you love, God uses you to spread that strange and mysterious love to the larger world.

We are all broken. Not all of us have come back from the precipice of death at our fathers’ hands, although some have. Not all of us have seen our fathers cast off our half-brother and his mother, although some have. Not all of us have suffered because of love, but most of us have at one time or another. The lesson of Abraham’s faithfulness and its impact on Isaac’s life is not so much that God tests our faith, but that God loves us and sees us as worthy of the work whether we respond with utter and complete faithfulness or with incomplete or feeble attempts.

We are worthy to be the sacrifice, as Isaac was worthy. We are worthy to do the work that God expects from us. That is love, the belief that we are worthy, and even if we are imperfect, we are still beloved and worthy. We are cherished. We are worthy. That is why God trusts us to do the difficult tasks he places before us. That is why God keeps asking us, even when we fall short in our prior attempts. That is why even a God who would ask something beyond comprehension is confirming that God thinks his beloved creation is up to the task.

We may be broken by what God sets before us, as Isaac was and as Jesus was when he cried out “why have you forsaken me?” We may not be able to finish the work. But we can still do it as much as we can, and we can still try again. God loves us, so he asks us, and we try, because God finds us worthy to be asked and we find God worthy of serving.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Over the moon...

Our first session of our "Saturday School" Christian ed and worship for God's special kids was this morning. It went better than I even imagined. To read more about it, check out the Other Blog. So many people worked to make this happen, and will continue to work to improve it. I have no doubt now that the Spirit has moved us to do this thing, and that come the fall we will be able to welcome other special kids to join us. I am grateful for Rev. Jerome Berryman for creating the Godly Play curriculum, which fits us so well, for the folks who developed the "Rhythms of Grace" curriculum which dovetails so nicely with the Godly Play stuff, for Rev. Amy P-T who served as a wise resource, and for a whole raft of wonderful Epiphany people who did a whole bunch of stuff to make this come to life, and who will continue to sustain and evolve it as necessary. And special shout-out to I and N, our first two students, who were a delight and a reminder that God's love comes in all different shapes and packages.

I came home shell-shocked from the wonder of it, and decompressed for a little while before going to Maymont and wandering around the whole place with PH this afternoon. It's a huge estate/park/nature center/wildlife center. PH presided at a wedding there in the Italian garden a few months ago. It was hot, tres hot, but beautiful. We saw a peacock who apparently has an unrequited love for a duck (peacock was following the duck around forlornly the whole time we watched), various raptors who live there because they have been injured and can no longer survive in the wild, foxes, deer, plus the usual array of barnyard denizens. The black bears were hiding. Great Japanese garden with a three story waterfall, magnificent Tudor revival buildings, plus the usual (snark alert) folks who should not be wearing little sundresses or Daisy Duke shorts or close-fitting polo shirts. Dear moment when a fellow was trying to get the wheelchair of his lady over one of the Japanese moon bridges, but decided it was too hard for him...a Mennonite lady said, "Oh I've got a strong son - he'll help you." Up popped the lad, who looked pretty strong, but the lady in the wheelchair took a bye. Still, so nice to see helpful people with generous hearts.

Other big thumbs up for the day: I had seen a pretty loveseat at a local consignment place - it was a reasonable price and appeared to be a good match for our bedroom colors. I stopped by today to verify the color was right, but it had a "hold" sticker on it. I went to the front and said, "I see it's got a hold on it. Would you let me put a back-up hold on it, since the hold will expire at 5 pm?" They said sure - just call them right before 5 to see if the people had come back for it. I just called and they said the people hadn't come back, so now I've got a beautiful aqua damask loveseat that will fit perfectly against the wall opposite our bed. Now all I need to do is to make sure the cat doesn't decide it's her scratching post (double-sided tape, do your stuff!)

Tomorrow we'll celebrate PH's 25th anniversary of his ordination. I baked a cake for our coffee hour at church. I may take pictures of the cake if it looks decent when I finish decorating it. If it doesn't, I won't. If it looks REALLY bad, I may post a picture just for giggles...

Picture at the top of the bread and grape juice from our first St Giles worship, plus the great stole that I wore, a gift from a mom of a boy who would love this ministry if he lived a little closer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Checking In

Nope, I didn't post a sermon on Sunday. That is because I have a seminarian interning in our parish this summer, and she drew the short straw and got to preach on the Trinity. Yes, I know it often happens that associates and interns get that short straw, but she had her choice: trinity or binding of Isaac. She punted the interrupted filicide to me, which is fine.She did a brilliant job on her sermon, and I'm fascinated by the story and all the information we DON'T get in the Akedah. Check here on Sunday for my cut on it.

Seminarian is doing a great job - she is helping with the Free Clinic project that the clergy in our neighborhood are trying to make happen. It helps that she is a) a grownup who worked in the world for a few years before going to seminary, and b) the parish that raised her up for ministry has developed just such a free clinic. She will also be accompanying our teens (me too) to Appalachia to do some mission work up in the "hollers" where the coal mining folk live. It will be an adventure, and I'm laying in a supply of bandaids and neosporin, plus tick removal tweezers and sunblock. We'll be working on repairs to homes and trailers and such.

We are in the final stages of prepping for our new ministry of Christian Ed and Worship for special needs kids. The room we have been rehabbing for this purpose is 95% may only be 98% done by Saturday, when we launch the first session, but that's okay. I am starting up another blog about it, St Giles' Gate. Check it out as we start to tell our story. Please pray that this ministry fulfills the need for which it is intended, to welcome children for whom conventional Sunday School and traditional worship is a challenge. Rather than fitting them into our box, we're going to try a little radical hospitality and build a box that fits them...

I'm feeling sort of tired and bleh. PH is getting over a bout of food poisoning from something he ate while away from home, and I am too pooped to pop. Vacation time will come at the end of August, but that seems so very far away.

Two more deaths in the parish over the last week - my contingent of seniors is shrinking. So I'm looking at a memorial service on the 7th and another on the 23rd. Wish i wasn't getting so good at this. On the other hand, it is great training work for the wonderful seminarian to see how we do this stuff - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Today I will also begin another round of mentoring/training one of our Sudanese parishioners who is going through a Sudanese Pastoral Leadership program with Trinity, Ambridge. We did NT last year, now it's on to the OT. How we are expected to get through it in a year, I'm not sure, but we will make it work somehow.

I'll be back...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sermon for Pentecost June 12, 2011 Acts 2:1-21 "A Mighty Wind"

In recent weeks, I’ve been watching the events in Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado decimated the city. I’ve watched television interviews with the victims. Over and over again, people spoke of their sense of dislocation, of disorientation. The vengeful wind that rolled through had obliterated all of the landmarks with which they were familiar. Their homes and their sense of place were upended in a horrible way. They were transformed.

Some said, “Thank God we’re still alive. The house is gone, but we survived.” Others wept and cried out, “We’ve lost everything. How can we begin again?” Still others were desperately looking for loved ones whose hands they had been clutching just moments before the twister reduced their house to rubble.

Different words, different responses to be sure. But the one thing they all had in common – mayor, firefighter, nurse, mother, pastor – was that they had been indelibly changed by a wind that blew through their lives.

Now take that image, a wind that turns your life upside down, and imagine it in a different time and place. Feel yourself in a room with the disciples in those few moments before the wind rushed through.

You’ve been together, praying, arguing about what to do next, eating, adding another disciple to replace Judas the Betrayer. You have gotten your instructions, to be sure: you are to stay put until the Holy Spirit comes, whatever that means. You’ve moved from a mood of grief and fear in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death, to one of joy and renewed hope when Jesus came back raised from the dead. And now you are….where? Wondering what to do in this seemingly endless wait-state, wondering what the Holy Spirit will be like, look like, sound like. Wondering how it will feel, how you will feel. A group of people who are no more than a whirlpool of hope and anxiety, waiting for what comes next.

And then, a wind. Unlike Joplin, there are no tornado sirens to precede it. One minute there is the squabbling in the room and the noises of the livestock and the fruit sellers and the women haggling for a better price and then, a wall of sound that obliterates all that came before. White noise. It hurts the ears. It presses down so you can hardly breathe. And then it stops. An utter absence of sound, but in the silence a rising insistent murmur as a strange thing happens. Tongues of flame descending, not burning, just gently resting on each and every head. And the murmur transforms into a cacophony as each person with their fiery crown dancing on their skulls begins to proclaim the word, each person speaking a different language, a language that they could not have spoken before this second.

A wind, transforming them, rushing through and turning their very souls upside down in their hearts. Not a destructive wind, as the one we saw in the past few weeks, but a constructive one, transforming each person in that room, each follower into a person with a voice to speak and praise and sing and teach and proclaim in new ways, with new power.

And in that moment, I wonder if they noticed that no one in their group was excluded from the wind and the flame. No, each one was transformed. Each one was given a gift of some sort. This Spirit-wind carried the power to transform every person in that room.

Peter, the same Peter who had denied Christ, who had hidden in a corner of the courtyard and had not made a move to defend his Lord…he stood up and boldly responded to the naysayers in the crowd. And he too reminded them that such a strange and wonderful blessing of powers had been foretold by the prophets, and that all those who believed were given such a gift.

Every one. But we forget that, don’t we?

I wonder if we think that not everyone gets that tongue of flame dancing above their brow. I wonder if we doubt that God has given us any gifts. It’s easy to get an inferiority complex and believe that only the most worthy people get that Spirit moment. We aren’t in an upper room with a bunch of other disciples dressed in long robes, so we think that Pentecost, that the gifts of the Spirit, are something far distant from us. We don’t get those powers, do we?

Ah, but we do. Each of us sitting here is actually sitting in that upper room. Each of us who has been baptized has that flame flickering above us. Each of us has gifts from God through the working of the Holy Spirit, that great breath of God inflaming us with love. Each of us has some unique ability that we haven’t even begun to perceive yet. Trust me on this one – this is real, for every single one of you. You have all been transformed by the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit, given gifts to use.

Sometimes I look around this room and I see these gifts in action. I see those who embody wisdom, who can take the long view and gently and kindly advise others in matters both spiritual and secular. I see those who are amazing listeners, patient and sensitive, and those who give good counsel. I see those whose courage in the face of life’s difficulties is inspiring. I see those whose daily prayer life and study of God’s word is an example of piety. I see those for whom the love of God is not an abstract, but an everyday certainty that informs how they interact with the world around them. These are not gifts that necessarily take any kind of special training – no, they are pure gift from God, and I’ll bet you can think of some folks around you who have these gifts.

But the thing about these gifts of the Holy Spirit are that they come with a responsibility, a responsibility to use these gifts. Perhaps one is a Sunday School teacher or a youth group leader, giving guidance to our beloved children. Another might be one who has taken the time to doing some serious Bible study, or who helps lead a study or prayer group. Another might help out a hurting soul with a kind word or an errand run. We live into our gifts by acting on them, by using them in God’s service, by celebrating the gift we have been given by passing on what we can, however we can.

This is not about money, or skill sets, or tools. It is about giving in love what God has given us. It is about bringing about God’s reign in action.

Is it easy? No. It is work to discern these spiritual gifts, and to see how best to use them in this place. It is a process of prayer and reflection to see beyond simply doing tasks necessary to keep the parish running and see into the work that God has in mind for each of us. It might take some experimentation until we find the thing that makes us feel, “Ah, this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

For me, when I finally faced the scary proposition that I was called to ordained ministry, when I finally stopped fighting the gifts God had given me and surrendered to the responsibility that came with those gifts, when that moment finally came, I breathed a deep and satisfying sigh, and was happier than I had been in a long time. I had tried every kind fo lay ministry that was available to me, but none had given me that moment of sighing and joy that I felt when I accepted God’s invitation.

Are spiritual gifts always about ordained ministry? Of course not. Some of the greatest practitioners of responding to God’s gifts have always been laypersons. Are spiritual gifts the work of a lifetime? Sometimes yes, more often not. We may discover that we are given a gift in one time in our life – showing God’s radical hospitality to others – and then suddenly we are called to a different gift, a different task – facilitating a Bible study, or providing support to parishioners who are ill. God’s gifts are infinitely variable and we can expect that the Holy Spirit’s sense of humor will sometimes call us to the last place we want to be!

One of the things I’ve been reflecting on this past week is the great depth and breadth of spiritual gifts we are blessed with in this parish, and yet sometimes I fear we doubt we are capable of doing great things. We think that we are a small parish with modest people with modest gifts.

I’ll let you in on a secret. There are no modest gifts. They all come from the all-powerful, all-loving God who cherishes each one of us with infinite generosity. How could the gifts that we have received from such a God be modest?

And how could the work we do to live into such extraordinary gifts be anything less than amazing?

I know, I know. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” I beg to differ. I believe that each and every one of us can do great things, because the gifts we have been given come from great love, the greatest love.

So on this day when we wonder if we can feel that little red flame just a millimeter above our head, when we fear that we have no gifts because we are not special enough, reach deep inside. Feel a whisper in your heart. Be still and listen to that whisper: it will grow until it is an awesome roaring wind of God’s love for you, and you will trust that your gifts from a mighty wind will give you what you need to do mighty things.

Give thanks for the window-rattling whoosh of the Holy Spirit to convey God’s gift to you, and go do something with it!


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

You CAN Go Home Again

I'm back at Big Old Seminary for a continuing ed thing funded by the good folks who bring you Prozac, The Lilly Foundation. About 2/3 of our class returned for this, which is a bit sad. I would have liked to see them all. Some good workshops, some great conversations with folks I love, some musing on next steps in my development as a priest, and the same refectory food that caused me to gain ten pounds in my first year there as a seminarian.

Random dots of this experience:
  • you can tell we're Episcopalians: they converted the small dining room into a bar. Veddy English with dark mahogany. No liquor license yet, just wine and beer, but it's a classy place to sip your Pinot Grigio.
  • we've all grown up a bit since we last saw each other. Some folks are more reflective, some are more verbal, some are more relaxed. A lovely thing to see, but I wonder how they perceive me? I feel mostly unchanged (except for girth), but I'm probably wrong about that.
  • dorm beds suck. I am so glad I lived in off-campus housing.
  • it is predictable who among us are thinking of PhDs and DMins and who wouldn't darken the doors of an academic institution except for a Con Ed class in a zillion years...and that's just fine.
  • we all have redacted stories to tell. Oh boy, do we have stories to tell. Some sad, some joyful, but the church is a human institution. We work for the Big Guy, but we are not always so good at it.
I came up here grousing about having to spend a week away when I've got so much to do at the office, and now - unsurprisingly - I am so very grateful for the time and space to learn and breathe and talk with people whom I respect. God knows better than I do what I should do, as always....and I got an idea in the midst of this that will make Sunday's sermon a better one. FTW.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, June 5, 2011 Acts 1:6-14 John 17:1-11 “Not When, but How.”

How do we build a church? We’ve pondered that question by following the words of Jesus in the Gospel and the process that Jesus’ disciples followed in readings from the Acts of the Apostles for the past several weeks. We’ve seen how Jesus gave the apostles the basics: repent, be baptized. Share the teachings. Share a simple meal in remembrance of Jesus. We’ve seen how the disciples struggled to understand what their beloved teacher was telling them, and how Jesus gently nudged them along a road to leadership, despite their confusion and false starts. We’ve seen Jesus bidding farewell before he takes his leave of his disciples, juxtaposed with Paul’s masterful work of preaching to the Athenians at the Areopagus.

But now we come to a time in the story when Jesus does something that shifts his relationship with his followers in such an astounding way that they and we are left stunned. They and we are left with only the words I prayed in the collect this morning: “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.”

It began, as it always did with Jesus and his disciples, with a conversation, a teachable moment.

Just as they were wondering when he would right all that was wrong with the world, when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus stopped them. “That’s God’s call, in God’s own time, not in yours. But you will have someone special with you to give you the power you need to do my work…the Holy Spirit will descend on you. You will do my work, not only here and in Jerusalem, not just in Israel, but in all the world.”

And as he waited for the moment when he was to return to heaven, John tells us that Jesus spoke to his heavenly father, and gave his final report of his work among them: “I’m ready, Father. I’ve finished the work I was to do here. I have gathered around me good people. Not perfect people, but good ones, righteous ones. They will carry on the work. They understand that everything I have told them is from you. You are in me, and I am in you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

And then he rose up above them, ascending on a cloud.

What must it have been like, to have finally gotten comfortable with the risen Lord coming back and being in conversation with them, and then to have him disappear again? To have him float above them, ever upward, like the lightest of eiderdown wafting upwards?

Might they have called, “Wait, wait. You didn’t tell us the rest of what we are supposed to do?” Or did they simply stand there, once again dumbfounded by it all?

No matter what their response was to Jesus’ Ascension, they got some further direction. Two men in white, presumably angels, were suddenly there among them, saying, “Why are you standing there like a bunch of idiots looking upward? Jesus will come back again, in the same way he just left.”

And then they were on their own again. We don’t know what their conversation was. We don’t know if they wondered if they should stay put and wait for Jesus to come back again, or if they intuited that it might be a while. We are simply told they walked back together to Jerusalem, to the other disciples, to the upper room where those disciples had been praying, along with some of the women who were Jesus’ family and followers.

He had told them that the Spirit was coming. The Spirit who would give them the power to do the work ahead of them. The Spirit who would be yet another sign of God’s favor on what they were to do. Another baptism, a baptism of the Spirit of strength and comfort and wisdom and righteousness.

So they waited, praying. Something more was expected of them. That they knew. Something more was coming. That they had been told. Did they know what the Holy Spirit would look like, what this baptism would feel like? No. They simply waited and prayed together.

I doubt that they would call that time of waiting the building of a church, but it was.

It was the exercising of their hearts and souls to prepare for whatever was to come.

Having witnessed what had happened to Jesus – the arrest, the torture, the excruciating death on the cross, and then God’s power made manifest by Jesus’ triumph over death – we can imagine they were worried. God’s work isn’t easy.

So they prepared themselves to build a church that bore no resemblance to anything they had known before.

They prayed and waited for this Spirit to come and give them a baptism of the Spirit. They prayed for strength for whatever would come their way. They prayed for discernment, for wisdom to make right choices. They prayed for forgiveness if they fell short.

What they didn’t pray for was for it all to go smoothly, for there to be no troubles. They didn’t pray for something magical that would enchant every listener to Jesus’ teachings. They knew that what was ahead of them would be hard.

They were right. When we hear the words of the first letter of Peter, we hear the warnings of someone who knew that the work of Christ is fraught with risk, a “fiery ordeal” that would test them, that would try them as silver is burnt to remove its impurities. It had to be frightening, this work they faced.

They did not know what building a church would look like. There was no road map, no architectural plans, no instruction manual. They did not know what turns of the road awaited them. All they knew was that someone whom they trusted, who had shown them love and wisdom beyond compare for all their time together, had given them instructions. Someone who had proven himself to truly be the son of God had prepared them.

In the days when they waited in that upper room, they prayed to prepare themselves.

And that is the thing we must take from these readings today: we are all asked by Jesus to work for him. It is hard work. We cannot do it without help. That is what those simple things we have been talking about come critically important.

Repent and be baptized. Share the teachings. Share a simple meal. And in all these things, rely on the Holy Spirit, who gives you strength and comfort and wisdom and the remembrance of all we learned from Jesus’ life and death. To build a church takes those simple things, united by a common thread – all are centered in prayer.

That’s why the disciples prayed as they waited in that upper room for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They had repented of their former ways. They had been baptized. They had shared the teachings in their first tentative attempts to preach as Jesus had preached to them. They had eaten together in the manner that Jesus had taught them. And each step along the way they prayed, even when things became most confusing, even or perhaps especially when they were frightened. They prayed.

Because that is the heart of building a church.


How do we build a church? We start by building a church in our own hearts, a placed where we hold our love of Jesus and what he gave us. It is a tiny church, to be sure, but Jesus’ love for us and our love for him in response can make that little church into a great cathedral of faith and love. We pray, and every prayer strengthens the walls of that church. When two or more of us gather together to build a church, our prayers in community start to construct those sturdy walls of strength of belief, not to keep out intruders, but to shelter us safely together. Our continued prayers buttress those walls, sweep those floors, shine a light through the windows to beckon others to come into this place of warmth. Prayers build a church, because they remind us how our relationship with God is built on love, and love dies without dialogue between the beloveds.

But what does this mean in our daily lives? We do what we already do. We pray to God, daily, for the strength to be good and to do good. We pray for friends who are suffering. We pray for people halfway across the world who live in the midst of terrible conflict. We pray for the wisdom to make right choices, and for freedom from all the little daily sins that we commit. We pray for the church, so that it might be a place of caring and loving and praising and helping.

That is how we build a church, a brick at a time, a prayer at a time. It doesn’t happen immediately. The disciples learned that and we have learned it too. But it happens if we all pray, if we all believe, if we pray with our hearts and our voices and with our work.

Pray. Pray without ceasing. If necessary, as St Francis said, use words; otherwise, we should simply make our lives a prayer. And our lives and our prayers will build a church that transcends four walls, that will be a place that welcomes Jesus when he returns in glory, as he ascended in glory.

That’s the task ahead of us. Get praying!