A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on Sunday, May 20, 2012
Christ Church Andover
Easter 7, Year B
May 20, 2012
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
When I was in 3rd grade, my family moved to an apartment in New York City within walking distance of my school. Every morning my father would make sure my backpack was on, and hustled me out the door so that I would get to school or early morning choir practice on time. We would walk the 5 or 6 blocks together, up a small hill, down the small hill, sometimes stopping to get him a coffee and me a hot chocolate or bagel, sometimes checking out a new display in one of the stores that we passed. Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we didn’t. We went along like this for about two years.
It was sometime in the midst of 5th grade when I started the negotiations to walk by myself to school. It was a tough sell. Instead of letting me go off by myself, my father would walk with me some days, and then trail behind me the other ones. At first he would be only about 5 feet behind me the entire walk to school. Then it became 15 feet. Then a half a block. Then a block. I always would turn around to see just how close or far off he was that day. Several months later, I turned around to discover that I couldn’t see him. He had let me go on my own to school, off on my first solo epic journey.
I remember as I turned around and found him missing, there was that moment of sudden sadness and loss, but also shock of excitement. I was the one walking myself to school. I was the one to watch out at the crosswalks, to order and pay for a hot chocolate should I want one, to take care that my wandering eyes and mind not make me late for class. It was the mixture of freedom and autonomy, coupled with the long training by my father, that mitigated any sense of being alone. I started to notice other people on my walk to school, the same people every day, who seemed to be on the same schedule as I was, who would give me the New York City nod in acknowledgement to each other. I learned the name of the man who buttered a bagel for me at the corner deli, and could wave to the familiar doormen I would pass. My world expanded and encompassed people I never knew existed on that solo walk.
This did not mean that my father would not, from time to time, surprise me with a sudden joint walk to school together, or would not follow me from a distance a few times a week, just to be sure. But it was my walk, my five blocks in which to engage with the world on my own.
Jesus was a true pedagogist, which meant that he knew how to teach us in a way we would understand. He knew how to leave his people in order to make his mission their own. After the bereft feeling of being left Jesus-less on the silent Saturday of Holy Week, we are consistently overjoyed on that second Sunday of Easter when we encounter Jesus once again, in that small upper room where we are assured that he is real, and will journey with us for the weeks to come—on the road to Emmaus, in the breaking of the bread, in the words which burn in our hearts. As disciples we are often wary of walking by ourselves, knowing—perhaps only in our hearts—that we are in the company of God incarnate when we are in the company of Jesus. So Jesus walks with us until we know the way. Then he steps back little by little, giving us hints or reminders from time to time that we, as disciples, will never be without him, will never be far from his abundant ever-giving love. And he lets us work it out on our own for these wonderful days until Pentecost, always half a block behind us, ready to let us cross the streets by ourselves, but making sure that when we get tempted by a showy window display or someone threatening comes near us, he is close to remind us of his presence.
Today, we are in the midst of that change of presence, and we can’t understand today’s gospel until we acknowledge that Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, has left us, the church, on our own. On Thursday, we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, his ascent to sit at the right hand of God, fulfilling his promise that he would leave us, but never leave us behind. It was at that moment when we were left to work out how we were to bring Jesus to the people—how to bring Jesus to the Church, as it began to be known. The gospel of Jesus wasn’t just about us, or about our own salvation. With the Ascension, it began to be about how Christ worked through us, through our own vision and acts and preaching and lives. It wasn’t about just us. It was about how we were about to become church. Our gospel today is a beautiful prayer from Jesus, often known as the ‘High Priest’ prayer. In it, we are being handed over from Jesus to God, from holy to holy, from loving hand to loving hand. It is not unlike what we will do at our Rite 13 ceremony that we will hold in a few minutes. And it is not unlike what we do with our lives day after day.
In our Rite 13 ceremony this morning, we will acknowledge that our children become youth, and our youth become young adults. We will pray that the young people here today, and young people all over the world know that they have been freely given gifts by God for the building up of the church, and working for God’s kingdom. And it acknowledges to them that their parents, their support and grounding for the first years of their life will always be there for them, but that that relationship will change—autonomy will be offered. Their parents will step back those five feet on the walk to school, then 15 feet, then a whole block. And they will watch and pray and love their young adult. But each one of these youth will have new responsibilities. They will be learning to find their own place in their family, their community and this parish, to offer their distinctive gifts and talents to this place and to God.
Just as Jesus walked with us for those post-Easter days, reminding us when we needed to be reminded, teaching us all the lessons we forgot, these parents and our community will walk with these youth transitioning into young adults, walking next to them sometimes, falling back at others, always loving them, trusting in God’s love of them. Jesus offered the prayer in the gospel this morning to remind his disciples that even though a big change was coming ahead, that we were God’s—not the world’s, but ultimately God’s—and that God would love us as Jesus had loved us even when he wasn’t with us. We are in the middle of those ten days between Jesus leaving us, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the church, defining it, at Pentecost. We are celebrating a transition from one state to another when we ourselves as a church are in that tween stage today—no longer just disciples, but not yet a church. In blunt terms, but not untrue ones, we encounter ourselves very much as the Britney Spears song: Not a girl, not yet a woman.
The church, in our liturgical calendar, is in a liminal time, in an in-between state. Next week we can look forward to the official birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit descends upon us at Pentecost, inspiring us to work as a community. But today, we notice that we are on our own, and that perhaps the work of God does not happen solely by others or by Jesus himself. We begin to understand that the work of the church happens only when we do it, because WE are the church—not this building, but the people gathered together. Rite 13ers, you have been full members of this community by virtue of your baptism, not your age. And the same can be said for each person in here. In those liminal stages of life and now of the church, we are given the autonomy and authority to learn how to engage our lives in a different way, learning different roles and responsibilities. I can only imagine that the disciples were secretly hoping that Jesus would continue his presence among them, giving them the ‘right’ ways of doing things; solving their problems; shielding them from disappointment. But instead of doing that, Jesus said that he would be with us, even if he wasn’t next to us. As he said in today’s gospel, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I have been glorified in them.” We are never far from Jesus when we align our will with his.
Today is the recognition of that moment when we look behind us and notice that we are on our own, sealed with the blessing and the mission of Jesus to be witnesses to his Gospel, to the Good News, on our own, in our own communities. And it’s okay to feel a little bereft of Jesus’ company (although the Spirit will sneak up on us from time to time, sometimes following half a block behind us, sometimes by joining and sharing a bagel with us along the way), but it’s also good and holy to sense the enormous gift of this mission and trust in our own messy forms to carry it out, everywhere we might go. Because it is our mission—we are the church, and the church will look exactly how we create it to be, because it is us. If we build it in love, it will look like love. If we build it in fear, it will look like fear. Now is the time in the church and for our Rite 13ers and all our youth to ask themselves Mary Oliver’s burning final question from the poem The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” What is it we plan to do now that we are the hands and feet and heart of Christ in the world?
It is in the in-between stages that we do the most growing. It is there when we have the most potential. The disciples had enormous power as they tried to work out how they would continue in Christ’s mission in the world after his Ascension. And what they did was to come together and become a true community, trusting that Jesus’ promises in his High Priest prayer were true. That they were beloved of God. That Jesus’ truth was life. I have to say publically that this Rite 13 group knows how to love each other, and how to support one another. It is one of their great gifts which will take them through all the transition and uncertainty with grace, and if not with absolute clarity, then at least with hope. It is my prayer that we can live into that same grace in transition, that our walk with Jesus a few feet behind us leaves us free to live into his abundant life and grace.