The Rev. Elaine Breckenridge
The Sunday after the Ascension
June 1, 2014
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.06.01 EHB
So have you heard the story about the man who went to the horse race track? He went there with one purpose: to place a bet or two and win. As he went to place his first bet he saw the strangest thing–a priest sprinkling one of the race horses with water right at the starting gate. So the man watched the race before placing a bet. The horse that had been sprinkled won the race. “Interesting”, thought the man. He waited for the next race and sure enough there was the priest sprinkling yet another horse and sure enough that horse won the race. So the man decided to take action on the third race. He carefully waited to see what horse the priest sprinkled and then placed a bet, putting all of his money on the anointed animal.
The race started. And.. after just a few yards… the horse dropped dead. Well the man was irate; found the priest and said. “Father, what gives? I saw you bless two horses with holy water and those two horses won the race. So I put all my money on the third horse that you blessed and yet he dropped dead. What are you playing at here?” “Ah, my son”, said the priest, “You must be a Protestant.” “Yes” the man replied, “but so what does that have to with this?” “Well”, said the priest, “you obviously don’t know the difference between a blessing and the last rites”
Last rites. In the Easter Gospels, the women friends of Jesus went to his tomb to offer the last rites, special prayers and rituals for the dead. And yet the body of Jesus could not be found. Then the Gospels tell us that for weeks the Risen Christ would come and go, making appearances to the disciples during that extraordinary period of time before his Ascension. This morning we heard two accounts of his final encounter with the disciples before he was removed from their sight. And with that, we can imagine that the disciples were first shocked and then perhaps heart broken. One would expect the disciples to grieve.
And yet the New Testament does not give us a portrait of grieving or depressed disciples. Far from it. As we heard in our Gospel this morning, the disciples were filled with joy as they said good-bye to their teacher and savior. In our first reading from the Book of Acts we learn that the first followers were filled with renewed zeal, purpose and energy.
We might expect that the Ascension of Jesus would be a moment of sadness and closure, yet in reality it was the beginning of something joyful and new. And the something new was that the disciples, the followers of Jesus , became Apostles. They were sent out.
That’s what the Greek word apostle means– to be sent out. They were sent out to change the world and so they did.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles, makes it all sound so easy, this business of being the church. And yet, what success the early church did have certainly did not come over night. The Scriptures tell the story of the evolution, a process of the People of God becoming the Early Church. Still, it is tempting to wonder what the secret ingredient might have been that enabled the transformation of a little band of ignorant, frightened and fragmented people into the first apostles. Maybe it was as simple as receiving a blessing. As our Gospel says,
“Then Jesus let them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. ” Jesus blessed his disciples in this final moment in time, just as he had blessed people all through out his ministry. You know as well as I do, that he blessed all kinds of people. He, like the prodigal father, threw his love around, blessing women and children, the homeless, the extremely vulnerable, those on the bottom rung of society as well as those on the top.
He was in the blessing business and so are we.
God bless you! Someone sneezes, and it is a refrain that we hear commonly.
God bless you. In the middle ages when someone sneezed you said “God bless you” fearing that they may have the plague. And so originally the mantra we repeat so regularly, developed as a way to ward off fear of evil, disease, and death. “Give me a blessing, before I travel.” “Give me a blessing before surgery”, I am often asked. In so doing, people are asking for divine protection. That is a good thing. We all need blessing prayers for protection. But is there more to offering prayers of blessing?
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. It is to learn how to look with compassion on everything that is.” To look with compassion on everything that is. That’s what Jesus did both in word and deed. And most often it was in small random acts of blessing.
There is a story about Gandhi, that one day, he stepped aboard a train as it started to move, and one of his shoes slipped off and dropped on the tracks. Unable to retrieve it, he calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track to land close to the first. When an amazed passenger asked why he had done that, Gandhi smiled and said, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”
With the eyes of his imagination, Gandhi saw a man with bare feet, saw him coming across a lone shoe and desperately searching for the other, and saw the disappointment on his face when he didn’t find it. Seeing these things, Gandhi did what he could to help.
Sometimes, to be a blessing in this world is to take action, acting on our imagination, bringing hope into a situation where none existed before. When we speak of being a missional people, as the Bishop did yesterday, maybe the simple acts of compassion we can do in our daily lives is a good beginning.
Yet something else happened at the Ascension of Jesus because Luke also tell us about it in this morning’s Gospel. “The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” They gathered together in the Name of Christ to praise the living God. HMMM…..Sounds like worship to me.
Again Barbara Brown Taylor writes, that “After the resurrection and ascension, whenever two or three of the disciples got together, it was always as if there were someone else in the room with them whom they could not see–the strong, abiding presence of the absent one, as familiar to them as the bread and wine and as each others’ faces. Today, we go to church to worship, to acknowledge the Lord’s absence and to pray, to be silent and to be still, to hold out the empty cups of our hands and to be filled with bread, with wine, with the abiding presence of the absent Lord until he comes again. Do you miss Jesus sometimes? Do you long for assurance that you have not been left behind? Then why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Look around you, look around.”
We should never underestimate the power of worship to ground ourselves as apostles, sent out to live the Gospel. As one of the stories of blessing posted on the wall in the narthex says, “St. John’s helps me understand life. There is a weaving of joy and sorrow in the liturgy that provides hope and renewal. At St. John’s we are all mystics, humbled and enlivened by spiritual revelation.”
As we begin our Capital Campaign, let us never underestimate what we have to offer here. Of course we offer last rights and blessings. But we also offer the sprinkling of water– both in baptism and for the purpose of spiritual renewal. We offer a context where we continue in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. And we gather as apostles, sent out to bless others. Tending to our on-going life in Christ through prayer, study and reflection and worship will save us from burn-out and discouragement as we take our place to minister in God’s world.
Last rites and blessings. We gather each Sunday not to pronounce the last rites but to both give and receive God’s blessing. And so receive this blessing this day,
Bless us with courage, where our way is fraught with danger.
Bless us with good companions, where the way demands a common cause. Bless us with humor, for we cannot travel when weighed down with over much solemnity. Bless us with humility to learn from those around us. Bless our lazy moments, when we need to stretch our limbs for the journey. Bless us with decisiveness when we have to move quickly. Bless us, lead us, love us and bring us home, bearing the Gospel of Life. Amen.