Sunday, May 24, 2020
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Acts 1:6-14 Jesus’ companions at prayer after his departure
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 God will sustain and restore those who suffer
John 17:1-11 Christ’s prayer for his disciples
Title: Prayers for a Liminal Time
According to my good friend, Joseph Colletti, the people of Peru have a unique take on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In the city of Ayacucho there is a notorious, all-out, anything-goes, wild party on that in-between Saturday. The unruly festivities are fueled but the understanding that in this time after Jesus has died on the cross and before he rises from the dead, they can do anything they want. Sounds like a good time.
Today is another one of those in-between times, what some folks in theological circles like to call a liminal time. This past, Thursday we marked the Ascension of our Lord. As the gospels testify, 40 days after Easter, Jesus, having gathered his disciples, ascended into heaven. And now we are in between his going up, and the Holy Spirit’s coming down that we will celebrate next Sunday on the Day of Pentecost.
So, what do we do with this in between time? Do like the people of Ayacucho and party wildly because Jesus has left the building and the Holy Spirit hasn’t come yet? Shall we be like freshmen at college or those away from home for the first time, separated from parents who have overseen their childhood but not yet required to take hold of the responsibilities of adulthood? Of course, following the guidelines of lockdown, quarantining, and social distancing, our acting out would have to be somewhat toned down. Okay, a lot toned down.
Perhaps we are wiser to join the disciples in their liminal activities. Yes, for once these folks who I often poke fun at for being perpetually confused and always getting wrong, are today offering an example to be followed. Of course, I do have to get in one dig at the disciples, and point out that they start the day confused. There they are on the hilltop with Jesus. They have been following him and learning from him, watch multitudes being fed, the broken healed, and the dead raise. They have witnessed his own most grotesque death and his glorious resurrection. And now, they are standing with him who is clearly the Lord of Life, and what do they ask him? Is this the time you will free our homeland from the mighty Roman Empire? Keep in mind that this restoration that they are seeking would not come about without a fight. The Romans would certainly not just shrug and say: Sure, have it back, with our blessing. What they are suggesting is nothing less than a bloody revolution. You just have to wonder how long did Jesus hold his face in his hands in disbelief that this question, after all that they had been through, would be asked. And we all have to wonder if Jesus didn’t look up into heaven with the deepest frustration and say: “Take me now. Please, take me right now.”
Jesus does his best in those final moments to redirect their attention away from political and nationalistic matters and begin to orient them to the work that they have been called to do: to be witnesses to all that they have seen and heard. Witnesses not just for their own tribe, their own country, their own faith community. No, Jesus is sending them out as witnesses to the ends of the earth. A daunting call indeed when you consider that most people living in Galilee or Judea would have only known the area around their hometown and the only journey they would take was to Jerusalem for the sake of fulfilling religious obligations. But that is their call. It is call that in continuing to demand that they rethink themselves, their lives, and their world. We witness just how overwhelmed they are by it as they stand there gazing into the heavens and they can’t take the first steps into this new call until the angels come along and give them a gentle but firm kick in the pants to get them going.
And their next step is the wise action that is worthy of imitating that I referred to. They didn’t form a committee, they didn’t develop a strategic plan, they didn’t create a corporate structure. (That would all come later; and is not necessarily a bad thing.) No, they came down from the mountaintop, the last mountaintop experience that they will share with Jesus, and they went into the city, as Jesus directed them, and they devoted themselves to prayer.
A wise activity for this liminal time, indeed. And perhaps even more so this year, at this time. As we feel ourselves more akin than usual to those disciples in a room, as we are also sequestered in our homes — given the gift of time for prayerful reflection, discernment, and examination. And also more of a connection this year, (for we who are the church, and who will again celebrate this identity next Sunday as we seek anew the coming of the Holy Spirit,) because this year we will emerge from our rooms of prayer and discernment into a changed world, a deeply changed world. Changed in more ways than can be articulated in one sermon. Changed in more ways that we even know or can identify at this time in our pandemic process. Whether you identify changes in behavior or landscape or whether you see changes in your own awareness and understanding. The world has changed. The world needs to change. From healthcare systems to protecting the vulnerable. From more robust preparedness to securing those on the margins. Whether you have new insight into our failing infrastructure or into the fact that systemic racism is not just a shame, but that it kills. The world needs to change. The church needs renewed witness in calling for change.
And so, we need prayer. And we need the leading of the Holy Spirit. I hope you will take time this week, whether on your own, or with our daily prayer offices online, to pray even just that simplest of Pentecost prayers: Come, Holy Spirit, Come. (Just a quick footnote: one rarely observed day on our liturgical calendar is the day before Pentecost, called The Vigil of Pentecost. However, with our current daily prayer schedule, we have Evening Prayer scheduled for Saturday at 4:30. I encourage you to join me for a special Vigil of Pentecost Evening Prayer liturgy.)
As we pray, we are comforted and encouraged to see that we do not pray alone. We pray in community, yes. But as we hear in this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus is praying with us and for us. Today we hear his prayer that we might all be one. One in and as his body on earth, one in the Spirit who animates us in the work of Christ’s body. Part of the promise of the ascension is that Jesus continues to prayer with us and for us.
And if the days ahead feel overwhelming, we are again encouraged to know that we are not alone. For the reading from Peter’s letter remind us that the church has faced challenging times from its beginning. At times clear in following the Spirit’s leading, at times failing in its role as witnesses to Christ. Sometimes changing the world. Other times being changed by the world and the cares of the world.
But whether the times are transitional or well established… And when you think about it, in this life, aren’t we always in times of transition? That great theologian Bob Dylan sang it best – The times they are a changing. And that wasn’t just the 60’s.
However, the heart of our witness does not change. So, as we wait on the power of the Holy Spirit, as we pray for the Spirit’s leading, let us continue to be renewed in the power of the resurrection: ours in baptism, nourished at the table, strengthened in the word. It is the source of our joy, our light, and our life. It is our shout this day and forever: Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
The Rev. Mark Erson,