Sunday, May 21, 2023

7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension


May 21, 2023


Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17



+ As many of you know, these last five years have been hard years for this old priest.


It has been a long, hard journey for me.


My mother’s death in January 2018 upended my life in ways I could never have foreseen.


And I found myself in those days and weeks and months…and yes, years…afterward struggling.


My writing career essentially ended.


For twenty-five years before that, I was a disciplined writer.


I was up early every morning, and every morning without fail, I would write at my desk.


I would proclaim to my students, “There is no such thing as writer’s block!”


I would say, “If you can’t write, sit yourself down at that desk and write anyway. And it will come!”


But when my mother died, sitting down at the desk itself became something impossible.


I couldn’t do it.


I was up early every morning.


But it was not to write.


I did eventually manage to get back to some semblance of writing.


But it wasn’t like it was before.


And then, when I finally finished the book about my experience with my mother’s death, I received only silence from every publisher I sent it.


Not rejection.


The book never got rejected.


Just silence.


Which was new for me.


A colleague told me that showed how far I had come in my career.


“They’re afraid to reject your work.”


But I’d take a rejection any day over ghosting.


It was so bad that last February when I was in Florida, I made the resolution that I was simply going to throw in the towel regarding my writing.


I was done with writing, I told myself.


Besides, I had written enough.


And then…when I got back, another colleague I shared my resolution with, told me to contact a poet friend of his.


She in turn told me to submit my manuscript to a press she suggested.


And within a week, the book was accepted!


And the floodgates suddenly opened.


The end of that dark five year wandering in the desert finally came to an end.


Just like that.


And here I am, up every morning, writing every morning.


I have not one but two books coming out this fall, plus a show with local painter Marjorie Schlossman in September.


And I’m working on a full-length play for Theatre B.


Sometimes, this is what life is like.


Sometimes, life is a matter of the death of the cross.


Sometimes, it is an unending waiting in the tomb.


And sometimes, it is resurrection.


And sometimes it is not even just resurrection.


Sometimes, it is ascension.


This past week, at our Wednesday night Mass, we celebrated the eve or Vigil of the Feast of the Ascension here at St. Stephen’s on Wednesday night, as we always do.


(Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension)


And as I said then, I repeat this morning:


I really love the Feast of the Ascension.


I love all that it represents.


I love that sense of going up.


Of rising.


Of moving upward.


Of this ultimate triumph over death and darkness and defeat and rejection and wondering about in the desert.


Ascension is, of course, all about rising.


This week, we move slowly away from the Easter season toward Pentecost.


You can almost feel the shift.


For the last several weeks, we have been basking in the afterglow of the resurrected Jesus.


In our Gospel readings, this resurrected Jesus has walked with us, has talked with us, has eaten with us and has led the way for us.


Now, as we hear in our reading from Acts this morning, he has been taken up.


We find a transformation of sorts happening through these scripture readings.


Yes, there is this absence as Jesus ascends.


We feel an absence in our relationship with the God of Jesus, whom we have come to know intimately through Jesus.


But, we realize, we will be given something that will not leave us.


We will be given God’s Spirit, right here with us.


We find that truly this Spirit of God is, in our midst.


Us, right here. Right now.


At Pentecost next week, we will acutely see the fact that God has truly come among us.


God is here, right now, with us.


No, God is not speaking to us not from a pillar of cloud or fire, nor on some shroud-covered mountain, nor in visions.


Now God is here, with us, speaking to us as we speak to each other.


At the Ascension, the puzzle pieces really start falling into place.


What seemed so confusing and unreal before is starting to come together.


God is with us and truly loves us.


God dwells in us and through us. 


And next week, one more puzzle piece falls into place.


Next week, we will celebrate God’s Spirit descending upon and staying with us.


For the moment, though, we are caught in between those two events, trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to prepare ourselves for what is about to happen.


We are caught between Jesus’ ascent into heaven and the Spirit’s descent to us.


 It is a time for us to pause, to ponder who we are and where are in this place—in this time in which everything seems so spiritually topsy-turvy.


I’m not certain there is a way we can make sense of the Ascension, but what we are faced with is the fact that the God of Jesus still acts in our lives.


God acts in us and through us.


I can’t repeat that enough.


The commission that the ascended Jesus gave to the apostles, is still very much our commission as well.


We must love—fully and completely.


Because in loving, we are living.


In loving, we are living fully and completely.


In loving, we are bringing the God of the ascended Christ to others.


And we must go out and live out this commission in the world.


For those first followers of Jesus, it seems like they didn’t have much of a chance to ponder their life-altering experiences.


As soon as one life-altering experience happened, another one came along.


Just when they had experiences Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, they encountered this outpouring of God’ Spirit in their lives.


The waters, it seemed, were kept perpetually stirred.


Nothing was allowed to settle.


That is what life is often like.


We have ebbs and we have flows.


There will be times of dryness and there will be times of flourishing.


And the great thing about our faith is it shows that oftentimes, when things seem like they are dead and gone, we find life renewed.


And not just renewed, by life resurrected and ascended.


Our job, in this time between Jesus’ departure from us and the Spirit’s return to us, is to simply let God do what God needs to do in this interim.


We need to let God work in us and through us.


We need to let the God of this ascended Jesus be the end result of our work.


Oftentimes we are so downcast by the things life throws at us that we forget to look up.


Because if we do look up, what will we see?


We will see that the Ascension is happening.


Above us, Jesus has risen.


And we are rising with him, even when it seems like we are bogged down in this very earth.


Above us, Jesus has been seated at the right hand of God.


All we have to do sometimes is look up.


All we have to do is stop gazing at our dirty, callused, over-worked hands—all we have to do is turn from our self-centeredness—and look up.


All we have to do in our exhaustion as we wander about in what seems like a landscape of death and rejection is simply to look up.




And there we will see the triumph.


Jesus’ ascension is our ascension as well.


We too have ascended to our God.


The joy we feel today comes when we realize that fact and truly act as resurrected and ascended people.


Yes, we are, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “in the world.”


And because we are, we must do the work we are called to do in this world.


But we are also of the world to come, as well.


So, let us stop wringing our hands and lamenting our losses.


Let us stop wandering about aimlessly in our grief and sorrow.


There is work to do.


Right here.


Right now.


Let us turn toward those around us in need.


And let us be the ascended Christ to those who need Christ.


And there are people who need us to be Christ for them.


There are people who need us to be kind and compassionate and full of love.


There are people who need our acceptance and hospitality.


When we love others, when we bring a God of love and acceptance to others, we allow others to rise and ascend as well.


We embody and allow the Ascension to continue in this world.


So, let the joy of the ascension live in us and through us and be reflected to others by us.


We will be sanctified in the truth of knowing and living out our lives in the light of the Ascension.


We will rise.


This morning, we have looked up and we have seen it.


We have seen that rising—his rising and our rising—happening above us in beauty and light and joy .


Let us pray.

Holy God, as we proceed through these last days of the Easter season toward the Feast of Pentecost, prepare us for the Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and our minds to an outpouring of your living and life-giving Spirit. We ask this in the holy Name of Jesus. Amen.



Sunday, May 14, 2023

6 Easter


Rogation Sunday

May 14, 2023


John 14.15-21



+ A few weeks ago, our very own Amy Phillips did something innovative.


Amy, who is part of the Diocesan Creation Care Committee, formed a new group here at St. Stephen’s called “The Green Team.”


The Green Team is made up of a several St. Stephenites who are striving to make St. Stephen’s a more ecologically sound place.


When Amy first brought this all up to me, my first reaction was, “Wow! This is great!”


I have long been committed to being ecologically conscious of how we use this earth we have been given.


I have been working in my own life to “live green.”


It’s not an easy thing to do.


But any little bit really does help.


And one of the reasons I went vegan 10 years ago was because I was made aware of the massive damage factory farming does on our environment.


The Green Team is going to making suggestions to the Vestry about ways we can make St. Stephen’s more ecologically sound.


One of the suggestions I made came as a result of a visit I made recently to All Saints Episcopal Church in Northfield, Minnesota.


There, next to their church where the Rectory obviously once stood, they have allowed a portion of their property to revert back to natural prairie.


In the near future, the Green Team will be making other suggestions for our parish, such as a possible use of solar panels.


Today, Rogation Sunday, is a perfect time for us to celebrate our Green Team and make a real commitment toward being a more ecologically-sound parish.


When Amy brought all of this up to me, I told her in no uncertain terms that I really want to see St. Stephen’s be on the forefront of this cause in the Diocese.


After all, why shouldn’t we?


We are the leading Progressive parish in the Diocese, and this all falls squarely under our progressive ideals.


Issues of Eco-Justice, Life-Giving Conservation and Creation Care as a whole are vital to the ideals we stand for here at St. Stephen’s.  


The Episcopal Church’s Creation Care Covenant states,


In Jesus, God so loved the whole world. We follow Jesus, so we love the world God loves. Concerned for the global climate emergency, drawing on diverse approaches for our diverse contexts, we commit to form and restore loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with all of Creation. 


And so, with that commitment in mind today, we will commission our Green Team.


And today, Rogation Sunday, the Sunday on which we give thanks to God for this earth God has given us, we find ourselves making a true commitment to Creation Care here at St. Stephen’s.


Of course, this is not really all that new for us here.


We have been incrementally trying to make changes here at St. Stephen’s over the years.


In fact, nine years ago, in 2014 we did some inadvertent creation care are at our Rogation Blessing.


On that Sunday nine years ago, we dedicated our Memorial Garden.


Now, I remember when I first introduced this idea at St. Stephen’s about a memorial garden about a year before that.


There was frowning.


There was a sense of, “Lord, what is he thinking of doing now?”


There was a groan of “Really? A cemetery? Seriously?”


But, when I said what I was planning was not a cemetery, but a place where essentially we were doing “Green Burial” of cremated remains, people really came on board.


When I said what I was proposing was a place where cremated remains would be buried directly into the ground, without an urn, or in a biodegradable urn, people really were happy with it.


And  look what a blessing that memorial garden has had in our life here at St. Stephen’s.


Thanks to Sandy Holbrook and the gardening committee and all the people who have worked for that garden and all that beautiful landscaping that was done there, it has become a place of beauty.


And in these nine years, our memorial garden has become a place of rest for twenty-one or so people.


Now I don’t think I’m overestimating it when I say it has also become a place of mercy.


We of course have laid people to rest there who had no other place to rest, who were rejected or forgotten.


Why? Why do we do that?


Because that is what we do as Christians.


In our Christian tradition, mercy plays heavily into what we do.


And as a result, there have been given, since the early Church, a series of what have been called corporal acts of mercy.


I’ve talked about this many times before.


These corporal acts of mercy are:


  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

I would add to that, “toc are for the earth.”


We at St. Stephen’s, in the ministry we do as followers of Jesus, have done most of those well.


Including that one about “burying the dead.” 


Burying the dead is a corporate act of mercy.


And it is something we have do with our services of burial and in our memorial garden. 


And it definitely sounds like something we do with Creation Care.


And, it’s appropriate we are doing to on this Sunday, Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before the Ascension of Jesus.


In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus explaining that although he is about to depart from his followers—this coming Thursday we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heaven—he will not leave them alone.


They will be left with the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth.


The Holy Spirit.


He prefaces all of this with those words that quickly get swallowed up by the comments on the Spirit, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”


And just to remind everyone, that command is, of course, “to love.”


To love God.


And to love our neighbors as ourselves.


This is what it means to be the Church.


To love.


To serve.

To be merciful.

To be Christ to those who need Christ.


To be a Christ of love and compassion and acceptance.


Without boundaries.


Without discrimination.


Because that is who Christ is to us.


When we forget to be Christ to others, when we fail to do this, when we fail to honor the earth and our place on it, we fail to do mercy.


We are doing mercy this morning.


We are living into our ministry of mercy to others.


Today is, as I’ve said, Rogation Sunday.


Rogation comes from the Latin word “Rogare” which means “to ask.”


Traditionally, on this Sunday, we heard the Gospel in which Jesus said,


"Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give to you".


Today, with our current lectionary of scripture readings, we actually find him saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate…”


From a very simple perspective, the thing we are asking today, on this Rogation Sunday, is to be faithful followers of Jesus, thorough our works and acts of mercy.

We are asking to be filled with the Spirit of Truth.


Now for some of us, this whole idea of Rogation Sunday and the procession that we will soon be making outside at the conclusion of our Eucharist might seem a bit too much.


Maybe even Creation Care seems like a bit too much for people.


But I believe all of this is very much a part of our Anglican Tradition.


In the 1630s one of heroes (you hear me quote him and reference him often), Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, commended these rogation processions.


He said that processions should be encouraged for four reasons:


1. A Blessing of God for the fruits of the field.


2. Justice in the preservation of boundaries of those fields and properties (which we can interpret as as the Earth itself)


3. Charity in loving, walking and neighborly accompanying one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any.


And 4 (hold on to your seats). Mercie (yes, mercy) , in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution of the resources, which at the time is or ought to be used.


In so many ways, that is what we do here and what we continue to do here.


Our memorial garden—this visible sign of the corporal act of mercy of burying the dead—is a part of this Rogation celebration.


This is where we do our blessing.


We process there and bless the earth and the land there.


We ask God’s blessings on the growth not only of crops and fields.


And we do something also very important there: We thank God today for this earth we have been given and told to take care of.


We also thank God for the growth of our congregation.


We are thanking God for the acts of mercy done to each of us.


And we are asking God to continue to make us Christ to those who need Christ.


As you can see, the rallying themes of this Rogation time are hope and justice and mercy.


As George Herbert reminds us there is always room for charity.


As we process out at the end of the Eucharist today, I ask you to look around the memorial garden.


I ask you to look at the names there.


We know some of them.


Others of them we will never know on this side of veil.


I ask you as you walk about to thank God for them.


I ask you today to thank God for the growth God has granted us at St. Stephen’s.


I also ask you to look about at the earth and the sky and the trees and the plants.


I ask you to truly give thanks for this beautiful earth God has given to us to care for and preserve.


And I ask that you remember Jesus’ call to us, to keep his commandment of love and mercy.


It is more than just sweet, religious talk.


It is a challenge and a true calling to live out this love in radical ways.


It is a challenge to be merciful.


As we process, as we walk together, let us pay attention to this world around us.


Let us ponder the causes and the effects of what it means to be inter-related—to be dependent upon on each to some extent, as we are on this earth.


We do need each other.


And we do need each other’s love.


And mercy.


We do need that radical love that Jesus commands us to have.


With that love, we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves.


We will show mercy to them.


Our neighbors, of course, are more than just those people who live next door to us.


Our neighbors are all of us, those we do in fact love and those we have difficulty loving.


And our neighbors also include this earth and all the inhabitants of it.


That command of Jesus is to love—to respect—those with whom we live and share this place.


Let this procession today truly be a "living walking" as George Herbert put it.


But let our whole lives as Christians be also a “living walk,” a mindful walk, a walk in which we see the world around with eyes of love and respect and justice and care.


And, most importantly, with eyes of mercy.






7 Easter/The Sunday after the Ascension

  May 21, 2023   Acts 1.6-14; John 17.1-17     + As many of you know, these last five years have been hard years for this old prie...