Ascension Sunday Sermon

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Passage: Luke 24:44-53 (with some help from Acts 1:1-11)

I want you to imagine something with me.

We are in a room together – perhaps the room where Jesus had his last supper. We all followed Jesus, expecting that he would be our King – that he would get rid of the Roman Government and free us forever. He would be our political hero that we have waiting for. But then they killed him, on a cross. That’s not what kings do. Our hopes have been disappointed.

Some of the women in the room have been to the tomb where Jesus was laid. But he wasn’t there. These two men who were in dazzling clothing spoke to the women and they were terrified. They were told he is not here, but has risen. Some of the men in the room didn’t believe the women, so Peter went out to see things fro himself and he only saw linens in the tomb.

Then there were two men who had joined us. They were walking on the road and feeling sad after the death of Jesus. They were joined by a third person whom God revealed to them that it was Jesus – the risen Jesus. They ate together.

Imagine the conversation that was happening. I wonder what kind of emotions were present.

Our world has been turned upside down once – our beloved leader was crucified.

Our world has been turned upside down once again – our beloved leader is alive.

Now what? What do we do with all the miraculous things that they have witnessed and the transformative teaching they received from Jesus before the crucifixion?

In all of the post-Resurrection appearances that Luke tells us about, the same message is given: that Jesus died and the rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. In the part that we read today, Jesus goes into more depth: His death and resurrection was so that there could be repentance and forgiveness. Moreover, as witnesses of these events, Jesus tells them that they are to share this good news in Jerusalem and to all the nations. I wonder if the disciples in the room were asking some of the questions that perhaps we have? How do we go about doing this? Can we really be witnesses to the love and life and freedom that the cross and resurrection give us?

As my predecessor walked me around the area, he showed me what he had learned and introduced me to as many people as he could. There are so many opportunities and so many exciting directions to head in. Where do we go at this phase in the life of St. Monica’s? What does the good news look like for the people who live in this area? How do we meet people in order to have conversations with them that might lead to sharing the hope that gathers us together each Sunday? The task that we face as the Church is the same task that the early disciples faced. We are to bring glory to God by preaching the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins and the life of freedom and joy that is found in knowing Christ.

Before sending the disciples out, however, Jesus instructed the early disciples to stay in the city until they are “clothed with the power from on high”. This is fleshed out in our reading in Acts where Jesus says that God will send the Holy Spirit. Before the Holy Spirit would come though, Jesus would need to ascend into the heavens.

Then Luke tells us that he led Jesus to Bethany where he lifted his hands and blessed the disciples. Jesus parted from them and was carried up into heaven. This is repeated at the beginning of Acts. There is a lot of mystery in the ascension. I think part of this mystery comes from our notions that heaven is above us and hell is below us. And certainly in the Acts story, the disciples were looking up into the sky even after Jesus had disappeared from their sight. Yet, we also believe that God is here with us. N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop and scholar, describes many of the ways that people have tried to explain this mystery: through skepticism and not believing it actually happened, or that people take it too literally, imagining Jesus floating up the sky like  a helium balloon that someone has let loose. He says that the way we need to think about it only brings out the mystery and doesn’t solve it.

We are going to watch one artist’s take on the resurrection. Notice how the skies open and close with angels appearing. [Watch video]

I like this depiction of the ascension as the skies open up as Jesus enters them, but it is very clear that it is the same skies that we see and gives the sense that something really mysterious and wonderful just happened. Wright claims that “heaven and earth […] are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two dimensions of God’s good creation.” (pg. 111) This means that heaven is both “anywhere and everywhere” and therefore so is Jesus. This also means that Jesus in heaven reigns over everything in heaven and earth – not just in the future but now. Does this make the ascension any clearer? I find it hurts my brain to think about it too much! Perhaps we ask the wrong questions when we try to understand the ascension. Maybe it doesn’t matter the mechanics of what happened that day, but it’s meaning for all who follow Christ.

After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem as they were told full of joy, praising God. When I first read about this joy, I have to admit that this time I am confused. How could they go from the roller coaster of doubt, fear, hope, confusion, sadness, disappointment and all else that they most of have felt in the time after Jesus’ resurrection? Joy is not what I would think of when your friend and leader is taken up into the heavens.

But I think  the disciples understood something really important. While Jesus’ physical presence would not be experienced in the same way, he goes before us to prepare the way. He directs us from the right hand of God, drawing us closer to him. NT Wright says “only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand – when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’ continuing human work in the present – are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present.” (pg. 113) In the ascension, Jesus has gone ahead of us, instructs and directs us, and reigns over this earth. Jesus is still present and still at work in this world.

I think it’s easy for us to think that everything depends on us. I know how easily I forget that very little depends on me. I wanted to share with you about something that happened this week. Whenever I have been involved in trying to serve the neighbourhood and share God’s love with people who may not have heard about God before, I have always created an email mailing list asking people to partner in prayer. One of the people I asked is someone I don’t know well but know that she is faithful in praying for others and for God’s church. I was amazed by her answer – when St. Monica’s was a store front, she and her husband drove by and she felt the urge to pray for St. Monica’s. Someone has been praying for you – someone you likely don’t know and likely won’t meet. But God had laid you and St. Monica’s on her heart. Now that she knows what we are up to, she will pray all the more. This was a huge reminder to me that Christ has already gone before me – before us. We might not know what the future is regarding St. Monica’s, but Christ does and Christ will direct us through the Holy Spirit how to be his church in the streets, homes, organizations and businesses in the neighbourhood.

Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came. Yet Acts tells us that they were not idle in waiting. Their big task was to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus. They needed to build their team and they did so by asking God to show them whom He had chosen for the task. They were continually devoting themselves to prayer. They were preparing for the task that God had for them: to preach the good news of the cross and resurrection, the life that we can have in the risen Jesus and that our sins can be forgiven.

This is a sacred duty to which all of us are called. Each of us are called to be witnesses to the Good News that gathers us here on Sundays.

There are so many different ways that we can be witnesses to Christ.

We can pray as the disciples did in Jerusalem that God will lead us to people who will be part of our team as we engage in the neighbourhood.

There are a couple of events coming up. Next Saturday, there is a fun fair at [one of the local schools] – it is a fundraiser but also an opportunity to show the children, their families, and the staff our support simply by being there. Then later in the day, there is a street jam and I hear there is going to be free food and lots of great music. I want to invite you to come to one or both of these things with me. And if that is not possible, I invite you to pray for all involved, but especially that Christ’s presence will fill the streets.

The library is also a fantastic place to build relationships. They have lots of free programs – it’s impossible for me to make them all! Perhaps though, one would interest you. In the prayers of the people today, we are praying for the library in our neighbourhood. I invite you to continue praying for them this coming week.

There is much work to do. There are many people in our neighbourhood who do not know Christ’s love. There are many who are yearning for some good news.

But today, let us rejoice as the disciples did in Jerusalem. Let us be filled with joy that Christ has gone ahead of us and is always with us. Let us rejoice in knowing that God calls us – all of us – to be part of his mission to spread the news of the hope, joy, love and freedom that comes from knowing Christ who gave his life for us, rose from the dead and ascended into the heavens.

Sources:

John Stott, The Message of Acts

MIchael Wilcock, The Message of Luke

NT. Wright Surprised by Hope.

When God Says No

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Today God said “No.”

For months, I felt him saying “Yes” and to trust and wait for him in regards to a particular job. The more I learned about the job, the more that I felt it was so very right for me. I went into the interview at peace knowing that God’s will will be done. I was pretty confident that this was it. This was the something else that I believed God was preparing for me. I felt surrounded by prayer. From my perspective, the interview went very well. I felt privileged to be able to share stories from the various places I’ve been able to share and to talk about things that I’m passionate about. I went home super excited as I had found out aspects of the job through the interview that excited me even more. I had been researching the area and thinking about the potential for missional work and the many things I could explore. I was told they would make a decision in a few weeks and so once again I had to wait. But this time, I was pretty convinced that this is where God wants me.

And then I got the call. It wasn’t what I expected. None of the candidates were a good match.

Instead of a job offer, God has said “No.”

I don’t really know what this means. Other than God closed the door that I was hoping to walk through in the coming days.

The words of John Michael Talbot’s Be Not Afraid speak to me today as I wrestle with God saying no and wondering where he will lead me.

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst

You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way

You shall speak your words in foreign lands, and all will understand

You shall see the face of God and live

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.

If you pass through raging waters in the sea, you shall not drown

If you walk amid the burning flames, you shall not be harmed

If you stand before the pow’r of hell and death is at your side, know that

I am with you through it all

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.

Blessed are the poor for the kingdom will be theirs

Blessed are you weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh

And with wicked tongues insult and hate you all because of me

Blessed, blessed are you.

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me. And I will give you rest.

Looking ahead, I don’t really know what things will look like. And truth be told, I am disappointed. I had begun to dream about exciting things that I could be part of. And while those dreams do not need to disappear, they are on hold until God provides a place for me.

I do know this though: the same God who has led me thus far, will continue leading me. As much as I’d love to be involved in something again and need the increased income, God has provided and I do know that he will continue to do so, even if it’s not in the ways that I expect and anticipate.

Testimonies, Interviews and Casual Conversations

As I apply and interview for various Christian organizations, there is one question that is inevitable, and yet the one I dread most: Can you tell us about your faith journey? I struggle with this question every single time. I typically draw together a few strands of my life:

  • I was homeschooled and my curriculum was heavily influenced by Scripture and so Scripture and prayer were a part of my daily life as long as I can remember
  • I was baptized in a Fellowship Baptist church when I was quite young – while my theology on baptism has shifted over the years, this was an important moment in my life and I was earnest. But I smile to think of what I could have shared as my testimony – my being saved from sin and my desire to follow Jesus.
  • We switched denominations a lot so I had a very rich and varied experience of church.
  • In my teens, we went to an Anglican church which is the place and time when I really started to distinguish my own faith from my family’s faith. It was in this church that I was “confirmed” – after weeks of preparation, the bishop laid hands on me and prayed for me, confirming my faith before the congregation.
  • I discovered the daily office in my teenage years and it is one of the things that held me together. I remember fondly lighting a candle, with music by John Michael Talbot in the background, saying evening prayer or compline.
  • I discovered a love for Scripture – a fascination that God would speak through words on a page and that it didn’t matter how many times I read a passage, God would STILL speak and there was something new there.
  • A pivotal moment in my life was feeling that God was calling me to ministry – not just as a member of the body of Christ, but as vocation. Specifically, I felt called to become an Anglican priest when at the time I was wanting to become a doctor. Much of my adult life has been wrestling and figuring out what that calling looks like. I remember one particular Sunday when I was working for an Anglo-Catholic church many years later realizing I am living into who God made me the most when I am working for a church and seeking to share the gospel with those around me and in the neighbourhood.
  • Sometimes I will mention the questioning and wrestling with faith in university and beyond as I seek to understand God in the midst of the broken aspects of my life.

All these things are true.

And all these things can be shared in the expected five minutes or less or paragraph on an application.

But I’ve never been satisfied with any answer that I have given. It seems so disingenuous. Part of this is because so much of my faith journey is intertwined with my healing journey that it’s really hard to separate the two. And, I’m not convinced that all stories are appropriate for interviews or first encounters.

I’ve been dwelling on this lately. And something came to me.

This isn’t just a struggle with what is appropriate to share. It’s a struggle with two very different testimonies.

The first one – and the one that I usually share – is about what *I* have done. I decided to be baptized. I discovered Scripture. I wrestled with God. I pursued theological studies.

But as the days and years go on, I realized that my faith story is not so much what I have done, but what God has done in me. When I think about my faith development and healing, I recognize that there are things that I have done that have contributed to where I am. But healing has only come from God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. When I think about any of the moments that were significant in my faith journey – the really meaty part of my story – I could not have orchestrated those moments. Sometimes God worked through people. But the deepest, most meaningful moments that have had a lasting impact on who I am and my desire to follow God have caught me by surprise, often coming in moments when I am at the weakest for perhaps the same reasons Paul claims he cannot boast about his own life.

And so, I think the way that I have approached interview or casual questions about my faith journey are flawed. I recognize that I am where I am at only by the grace of God and yet answer as if I have achieved this on my own – or, if generous – that God saved me through the cross, but my faith is my recognition, my response and my doing.

Why I Marched

Today, I joined approximately 60,000 women, men and children marching in Toronto for women’s rights. Such marches, originating in Washington, D.C, took place in 50 states and over 600 hundred marches in solidarity on 7 continents. For some, this was a protest against President Trump and his tweets and speeches that put women down, sexualize them or mistreats them. However, this march stood for so much more!

When I announced on Facebook that I was going to this march, I received quite a bit of resistance which surprised me, claiming, for example, that this was primarily a pro-choice march. In Toronto, we had an hour of speeches and this divisive issue was not mentioned. Instead, there was a focus on the way that women of all backgrounds and beliefs have been treated. What I found special about this protest march is that it brought together people who may not agree on many things, but who all stood for fair and equal treatment for women. It was a peaceful and nonviolent protest. There were people in their 80s present as well as babies. There were men of all ages there and many of them wore pink – to all the men who came, I want to say a special thank you for standing in solidarity with women’s rights. In doing so, you speak volumes that women’s rights are something that everyone should be concerned about.

At the outset, let me say a few things. First of all, I did not agree with everything that was said nor did I stand behind each sentiment on a protest sign. At the beginning of the march, we were given pins that asked “Why are you marching?” I spent quite a bit of time in the presence of women who I know have experienced similar things to think through why I was marching. The organizers of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. posted a four page typed list of what people were standing for. And most of those things were why I marched. Second, I am also aware that this is a pretty negative post. It is all things that I think people need to hear. However, I’ve also been blessed with people who deeply respect women and value my input, gifts, experience and knowledge. I’ve been privileged enough that I haven’t felt that my gender has prevented me from work or from fair pay, a privilege I know many others do not experience. I’ve had the privilege of working for people who did not treat me differently because I am a woman. I am thankful for these people in my life and for the hope they give me in respecting women’s rights.

So let me get personal.

I have my own painful story of what I endured growing up and the consequences of speaking up. I’ve written about that elsewhere and want to focus this blog post on some other things I’ve experienced. However, this was one of the major motivations for me to walk today.

There is seldom a week that goes by when I haven’t been “cat-called” or had a comment about my body by a stranger.

I’ve grown so used to these comments that I don’t think about them anymore. Well, most of the time. Sometimes they still catch me off guard and anger me.

In the fall, I was assaulted on the bus by a stranger. I wasn’t the only one. Someone told the driver, who was subsequently required to stop the bus and wait for the police to show up. He was only allowed to tell us that transit control required him to stop. The men on the bus were quite upset that we weren’t going anywhere. Then the police showed up and removed the passenger in question. Then came the stories from all the young women on the bus who had been assaulted to varying degrees spoke about their experiences. This all happened in front of others. Granted, I know all to well how consumed in a book or my own thoughts I can become as I commute. But I have since found out that this is a common experience for women on our transit system.

Since that day, I’ve found myself sitting closer to the driver.

On Christmas Eve, I went to a candle light service that ended such that I would be at the subway station waiting for the bus after midnight. I could walk home, but the street is not well lit, there are a couple of bars with people drunk and smoking outside, and often shady characters. I asked a friend if she’d wait at the subway with me until a bus came as I didn’t feel safe.

If I’m walking at night, I am holding on to my phone – just in case I need it.

I am no longer surprised if I hear that someone has been sexually abused or assaulted.

In a workshop with youth about bullying, I had them write down on sticky notes things that they have been called. The words that the girls have been called break my heart.

Online dating is a thing for my generation. Many people have found their match through these sites and, as a tool, it alone is neither good nor bad. But for every polite conversation I have with a guy, I’ve had to delete a ridiculous number of messages that are overt in sexual come-ons.

In a recent Facebook discussion, I mentioned a stat that I had read that talked about how roughly 50% of girls who get pregnant, the father is 5-6 years older than them. Depending on how old the girl is, that is statutory rape. A person’s response was “Oh please, they wanted it”. If that was the only time I’ve heard such a sentiment, I think I could handle it ok. But it’s not.

Also in that discussion, the same person said that women should be in control of their bodies… because they are the ones that get pregnant. First of all, this dismisses the many people who have been abused, assaulted and/or raped and it’s a message we hear all the time. Why didn’t we do something about it? Why didn’t we kick or scream? Why didn’t we say no? Why didn’t we report it? But even in consensual relationships, it takes two to make a baby! Yet, I hear over and over and over how women are the ones who are to be responsible and the men get off. Interesting isn’t it, how in Scripture, the adulterous woman is about to be stoned and there is no mention of the man with whom she committed adultery!

I know what it’s like to not be believed. I know what it’s like to be dismissed because I’m hormonal. I know what it’s like prepare a sermon and have it called “teaching” simply because I was in a church that doesn’t allow women to preach. I know what it’s like to say something and have it dismissed, only for a man in the room to say the same thing and be applauded.

Today was a day that hundreds of people around the world said that all these things are wrong. It’s a day that we stood in solidarity saying that women have the right to be respected and a right to equality. It’s a day when we said no to hate. It’s a day where we said we will not be silent. It is a day when we said to each other – you are not alone. It was a day where people came together – despite their differences – to say that we demand that women be treated well. All the time.

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Feast Day – Holy Innocents

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When King Herod found out about a new king being born, he panicked – someone could overtake his throne? And so all baby boys under the age of two were killed. innocent lives were taken.

 
This is a part of the Christmas story that I don’t like and I would like to erase altogether. What tragic loss for all of the families that I cannot imagine. It does not seem fair at all that because the king was threatened by the Messiah’s birth, innocent babies are killed.
 
At the same time, there are innocent children around the world who are victims of violence – and victims of religious violence. One need not look further than Aleppo for evidence. I have known children and youth who have gone through things that no child should know about let alone experience. This feast day gives voice to children and youth around the wold who experience immense suffering at the hands of others, often in the name of “God”.
 
I think what this feast day says to me – is that God takes notice of the babies and children who are harmed or die at the hands of others. Even though we do not know the original victims’ names, God knows them and we remember them on this day.
 
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We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents Of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/24.html_)

Do Not Be Afraid

I have to admit – the past few days I’ve been a bit concerned about what is happening in the world. Trump and Putin talking about expanding nuclear weapons – whether this is a joke, a threat, or policy -has made me feel the darkness of the world in a new way.
 
Living in Canada, I’m pretty privileged. I am free to worship Jesus with fellow believers with the occasional jest made at my expense but nothing that really threatens my being. I really don’t know what it’s like to be a Christian in a closed Muslim country, a missionary to North Korea, a Syrian Christian in Aleppo. I understand from my Muslim friends that even fellow Muslims are not protected from ISIS attacks. I live in such privilege that I can choose not to even think about what others face.
 
But in the past few days, the topic of nuclear weapons has been on my mind. I read one article that talked about the capacity of these weapons to destroy – the capacity to decimate a large area and to cause 3rd degree burns in survivors. If the powerful countries with nuclear weapon capacity deploy weapons of mass destruction, the world could be a very different place. I shudder at the thought. I cry at the knowledge of how many nuclear weapons there are in the world – and these are just the ones that are known. And I fear. I fear the days ahead. The comments made by Putin and the President-Elect are not clear as what they would do with nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons may never be used. But the possibility that they could be – frightens me. Partly because of the world wide chaos that would ensue. But mostly because my own protection is not guaranteed.
 
Throughout the Gospel narratives, angels are telling people not to be afraid. Mary doesn’t need to be afraid because God has found favour with her. Joseph needs not be afraid because Mary is pregnant due to the hand of God and not infidelity. The shepherds don’t need to be afraid because the babe in the manger is the Christ child. In fact, one of the most common phrases throughout Scripture is “do not be afraid”.
 
I read the story on Syrian Christians in Aleppo celebrating Christmas (click here). In the midst of real danger – and danger from simply being Christian. And I am humbled. This is real faith. Faith in the midst of possibly losing your life for celebrating the birth of Christ. Faith that is determined to worship out of profound love for God and determination to not be afraid of man; The embody the words echoed throughuot scripture “do not be afraid”

It’s the messiest time of the year!

December 25, 2016 1 comment
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THE HOLY FAMILY – the nativity figures are hand carved from some place in Africa (which I realize really doesn’t tell you much, but I can’t remember which country). The doily is from Heidelberg, Germany – a gift from my parents when they returned from a trip to Europe when I was about 16 years old.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the messiness of Christmas.

A young unwed girl becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Today, we would either say the girl is lying or get her psychiatric help. Or both. Mary’s pregnancy could of left her poor and destitute at best, or stoned at worst. I can’t imagine travelling far distances on a donkey – but to do so 9 months pregnant?

Then to be turned away and offered a place with the animals to give birth. Talk about unsanitary conditions! The son of God could have been born in a palace – but a manger was his bed. I watched a funny video of children telling the story of Jesus’ birth and they commented on how Jesus probably “pooed” and it was probably very smelly. Having worked at farms, farm animals are kinda stinky! Not very king-like. Definitely very messy. The son of God not only took on human flesh, but came as a helpless baby, totally dependent on others for his care.

Instead of the elites coming to praise and worship this king, shepherds – smelly, dirty, poor shepherds were the invited guests. I remember reading somewhere that they would not have been allowed into the temple – but they were invited into the miracle and mystery of God becoming flesh.

Then King Herod gets wind that there’s a new king born. He is so intimidated by a little baby, that a massacre of male babies under two is commenced. The “holy innocents” as the church calls them and their families bear the price of human sin, pride and power. Jesus escapes – but as a refugee in another land. Less than two years old, his life is wanted. It definitely wasn’t “the most wonderful time of the year”

This is how God sent his son into the world. Jesus took on human flesh and experienced the vulnerability and messiness we face as humans. This is such a mystery to me that God would choose such a messy way to come into the world. And yet, it is such a comfort and hope to me for Jesus knows my messiness – and believe me, I’m messy! Ultimately Jesus redeems that messiness through the Cross. But I think one of the mysteries of Christmas is that Jesus not only knows our messiness but it experienced it.

And so as I – and people I love – face messiness in our own lives – I take comfort tonight in the mess Christ chose to be a part of out of love for you and me.