7 Easter A May 24, 2020
We had a Holy moment this week. We commemorated Christ's Ascension to heaven on Thursday, one of the great festivals of the church, the fulfillment of all he said about himself and, let's be frank, about us. Jesus has laid out for us once again details of all our potential to live and work and sleep and die in his image, mirroring his own ministry in the world, loving God and loving our neighbor. Perhaps most of all, loving God by loving our neighbor.
I could be mistaken, but I think most of us have doubts about experiencing heaven after we die. Many have doubts about heaven altogether. But where I think we all can meet and share one general opinion is on the subject of the kingdom of heaven also being in the here and now, where we live our daily lives. Jesus made that observation a few times, of course, and we have had glimpses, haven't we?
You and I have had glimpses of that together over the past fourteen years. That sense that the kingdom of God has come near, as Jesus said.
Our capacity to live our lives as though this was the heavenly environment prepares us very well for what comes next. Whatever it is. Our spirits can be fully expressed in this world, and surely that is heaven-like if not heavenly. If we concentrate on making earthly life more heavenly it likely means we will be calling on our better behaviors and attitudes, treating better one another and, by extension, ourselves. After all, we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." We do not expect to be forgiven more than we forgive, do we?
Commemorating the Ascension offers us a holy moment every year. It is one of the beacons of our faith, a guidepost if not a lighthouse to help us find our way. If we are are seeking to live our life in a manner consonant with our beliefs, especially as enumerated in the Baptismal Covenant, we thrill to these closeups of Bible assurances. There are a quite a few of them. They lift our spirits in language that is beautiful and poetic and they call to mind our confidence in our lives in faith, even if we are a little uncertain about the specifics concerning the afterlife. They move us very deeply. They are powerful and energizing.
I delight in readings and hymns that uplift and thrill, that provide us with a holy moment. Don't you?
Due to the pandemic I have had more exposure than usual to a couple of other very special readings, electrifying ones. Pretty much since our isolation due to the corona virus started I have been conducting Evening Prayer each weeknight on Facebook Live. I haven't experienced Evening Prayer so regularly since seminary. I am aware how changed I was by it then and how true that is in the present return to daily Evening Prayer. I am changed yet again. It's those holy moments.
These are the two elements of the service that always and especially return me to a calm and mindful state. One comes very nearly at the beginning, the other just before the Gospel. Both talk about light in the evening.
The Phos hilaron, O Gracious Light, reminds us to trust God and Jesus for spiritual light as the day darkens:
O gracious light,
pure brightness of the everlasting Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, Holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
And our eyes behold the vesper light,
We sing your praises, O God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of light,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.
The Phos Hilaron is the oldest known recorded Christian hymn, outside the Bible, still in use. It aids us in remembering that our lives are enlightened by our faith even in the dark, sitting or lying in reflection on our day and on what was done and what was left undone. We are not in the dark, figuratively, if we are turning to God to reflect on the day, to close it out in prayer. Full of the light of faith we are ready to do our part to glorify God.
The Song of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis, is from the Gospel of Luke. Simeon is an aged priest who has been promised by the Holy Spirit that he will live to see the Messiah. On seeing Jesus when his parents brought him to the temple for the rite of purification he sings this song:
Lord, you now have set your servant free,
to go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see.
A light to enlighten the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.
Molly and I made a special trip a few years back to the Frick Museum in New York and we saw the famous painting of this scene by Rembrandt. It was a small painting with a lot of dark background and a glow around the scene of Simeon and Jesus and Jesus' parents. It was the light to enlighten the nations, Jesus, which caused everything around it to seem dark, of course. Simeon's joy and relief was visceral.
Now I am not about to declare that as I am retiring in a week I relate to Simeon's joy and relief at seeing the Messiah. No, although I do thrill to the scene. It is a reliable holy moment for me. But I am appreciating the gift from you and from the church and, oddly, from our collective response to the pandemic, that has moved me to conduct Evening Prayer five days a week for the past couple of months. As chapel did in seminary, the experience of Evening Prayer has centered me and reminded me of many features of my faith that don't surface in the Eucharistic context.
The repetition of nearly memorized scripture is soothing and penetrating. The rhythms and patterns of the prayers, even when they change from day to day, are comforting. Add to this experience the recorded organ parts of a variety of hymns Maris Kristapsons has located for Evening Prayer and I find myself floating between my youth, when church was usually the Daily Office; seminary, where it was twice daily; our parlor at St. Paul's where Morning or Evening Prayer is offered at least once and usually twice a week; and my portable desk in the tv room at home where I conduct the service now. It has brought me full circle in a most enjoyable way.
You may not realize it, but you have given me this gift. You encouraged me to conduct the online services. And, most of all, many of you show up to join in this service. I don't know if you're reading along or just listening. I don't know if you are singing the hymns or just hearing the organ music. But I know you're there, sometimes as many as 30 or 35. I feel it is a gift to be accompanied through this last stage of my time at St. Paul's.
There was a time when I didn't have time for my faith. Happily I sought it out in my 30s, back when the so-called new Prayer Book was actually new, I like to say. From then until now, about 40 years, I have been drawn closer to life in the church, step by step. I think what I just described is the last step. But in between my youth as a choir boy, then an acolyte, then an usher, then a lector, subdeacon, seminarian, deacon and priest, my delight in and commitment to the Christian faith has grown, deepened, and surprised me again and again.
In Germany fourteen and a half years ago Molly and I looked at the profile of St. Paul's and said to each other, "That's the one." Actually, Molly said it first. We had been deepening our involvement in the church before I went to seminary and was ordained and we had a strong sense of outreach to the marginalized as a major part of our ministry. Outreach was the only area in which church in Germany came up short. They didn't need any and had a hard time coming up with some for our parishioners at the Church of the Ascension in Munich. In Germany hungry people are fed, homeless people are housed and the unemployed are found work, unlike this country. But we knew there were needs in this country, in this community, and we were ready to sign up!
We were not disappointed! There were endless opportunities for us to engage at St. Paul's and we took advantage of most of them. The food pantry has grown in leaps and bounds and Molly and I both took great satisfaction in being able to help out. There have been building issues large and small which had to be resolved. And there have been structural organizational changes in our congregational life as well as our worship practices which have opened the doors of faith a lot wider for all of us. Our relationship with the diocese has never been stronger and we enjoy what feels like special favor in the hearts of all three of our bishops.
We are recognized in the community in a number of ways for a variety of reasons. For one, we are not the everyday church where it is pointed out that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning in church. We enjoy our diversity and we celebrate it. We are also known as a church of modest means that feeds the needy in this community. We don't have extra funds but we find the funds to operate our food pantry. People know this, which is why we've received surprising donations of funds and food from folks during the corona virus isolation.
All these things are fantastic and I am proud of them as I hope you are, also. But most of all what I prepared to say today is that this church is populated with faithful people who are unafraid to give love to the unlovely, to lend support to the broken and the desperate, to sit not in judgment of others but instead stand for justice for all. We have a congregation where the parish life aligns with our Baptismal Covenant.
Along the way over the years Molly and I have been able to find these things, these very positive features, here and there, but never all in one place. Until we came here. I have spent a fair amount of time in my fourteen years as your pastor thinking about this. I have concluded that the collection of attributes that makes this church a wonderful place to gather and worship God and do God's work is simply a reflection of what God wants for everyone. Not just the Episcopalians, not just the New Yorkers or the Americans, not just the Christians. God wants for everyone the possibilities we experience together, the opportunity to live and grow together in faith.
A few years back when we started the Renewal Works program we asked people what they wanted that would help them grow in faith. Many of our responses had to do with Anglican traditions. We met them head on and organized presentations on Anglicanism, on our Eucharistic traditions, our musical choices, and so on. In that process I think we gained a better understanding of our combined identity. Not just our collective identity which is yours and mine and everyone else's, but the uniquely Anglican capacity to honor difference, whether high or low church, traditional or modern or other musical styles, to use different liturgical touches and help one another grasp what the differences are and what they mean. In that process everyone became more familiar not just with the traditions of others, but we each became a little more clear about our own personal connections to the church.
The adoption of the practice of using Morning or Evening Prayer before our regular meetings was intended to bring a distinctly Anglican practice into the conduct of the business of our parish. It has resulted in any number of committee chairpersons and members becoming competent and confident in officiating at Morning or Evening Prayer. And while it is only my impression, I haven't checked this with anyone, I suspect and believe that the members who experienced that Anglican worship at a regular meeting found themselves more calm and confident in the wake of the service. Better able to see the best path to whatever issues they were facing at the moment. Faith-and Anglican approaches-make that possible.
Renewal Works isn't just the program we instituted from Forward Movement. Renewal works is something we established in our own hearts, to renew our energies, our curiosity, our interest in faith and the faith of one another. Your engagement thrilled me and fulfilled our own sense of the kingdom of heaven drawing more near. I thank you for that gift and for the way we all were able to draw closer because of it.
We have prayed together, opened our hearts to one another, shared what brings us joy and what brings pain, we have worked to heal our neighborhood and our community by being good, generous neighbors, and we have given it all, every bit of it, to God. God gets the glory known as St. Paul's. You and Molly and I and our neighbors are the beneficiaries.
In each of the steps, every one of the stages and developments I've summarized here you have been generous and accepting and engaged with me fully. I'll have more to say next week that I will do my best to insure is not redundant. But for now know that I have felt privileged to live out this miracle with you for 14 years. I have grown in many ways and given it all I had. I wouldn't change a thing. I love St. Paul's. I love you all. Amen