Detail of Visitation by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1445, via Web Gallery of Ar
It is hard to imagine what was likely a twelve to fourteen year old Mary taking off alone into the Judean hillside on a four-day journey, even if it was to visit her cousin Elizabeth as two mothers-to-be. Many assume that this meeting was not specifically historical, but a literary and theological device used by Luke to bring the two together so that both may praise the God active in their lives and establish John, Elizabeth’s son, as Jesus’ precursor.
None of this reduces the magic and delight of the scene, however. I find that every time I read it I have womb envy. It reminds me of Jacob and Esau “leaping” as they struggled in Rebekah’s womb, portending future relationships and the movement of God always on the arc of the liberation of God’s people. Even the encounter of Mary and Elizabeth is rife with themes of liberation.
On the darker side it all has the scent of crisis moments found in the Hebrew Scriptures surrounding the Exodus saga. Mary flees much as Moses fled after his crime. She is “untimely pregnant,” outside of the likely clan arrangement of her day. Her pregnancy is an affront to the social and religious order and therefore a crime punishable by death. In the midst of it all, God is delivering into history the great liberator and prince of peace, Jesus the Christ. Light is promised.
Singing in exaltation infuses the moment as Elizabeth cries out her hymn, “Hail Mary.” Mary responds with the great hymn of liberation we know as the “Magnificat,” again connecting us to our Jewish roots through Hannah’s song of praise for God’s great acts of setting God’s people free.
I was making a call on an elderly woman who, according to her son, had not spoken for ten months. He joined me for this particular visit and spoke of the pain of not being able to communicate with her and wondered if anyone was “in there.” As our time unfolded in our visitation, I learned through the son of his mother’s great devotion to Mary. When I offered prayer, I led with “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” Elizabeth’s words to the mother of Jesus. At that very moment his mother’s eyes took on recognition and she, in clearly enunciated English, joined us in the rest of the hymn. It was a moment of being set free for her son and for his mother, as later that night she died. Something leapt in all of us, the stirring movement of God’s Spirit always making new and redeeming what is right in front of us. It was a new day.
Mary and Elizabeth were open to the God-surprise in their own life circumstance. Each day gives us an opportunity to offer ourselves to this same possibility. We might even find ourselves singing new songs of hope and liberation for all God’s people.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017
All Saints Episcopal Church, Hampton
Caught in-between. How do we begin to make sense of the time from Ascension Day to today, still in the Great 50 Days of Easter, and anticipating Pentecost next Sunday? Jesus is raised from dead, now taken up into heaven. One moment he is among them; the next moment not. Really? It is clear to me that we are not saying Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch. And art depictions of Jesus’ feet sticking out of the bottom of a cloud as we gaze from below I do not find helpful. Even the Scripture from Acts we heard today asks the question, “People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
What we do discover, however, is language that suggests a change in location. Whatever the Ascension is, it is that – a transition that incorporates a sense of loss on the part of the disciples as they say goodbye, yet also a moment of glory for Jesus. As Jesus takes his leave in bodily form on the earth, there is a transition in the life of the disciples then and in the life of those who would be his disciples now – you and me. It participates in the movement all of us are always a part of, and that is the movement from life to death to life again. In case we have forgotten, we were baptized into Jesus’ death in order to be raised with him even now, in this life. It is the central meaning of baptism – dying and rising.
A cursory hearing of today’s news events hand us glaring pictures of death, literal and metaphorical, acts of non-love of the highest order and they break our hearts. “Let God’s enemies be scattered” Psalm 68 proclaims. Who isn’t horrified by the events in Manchester, England and the attack on the Coptic Christians in Egypt? We are burdened with the images of starving children in Syria and South Sudan. In the renewal of our baptismal vows we will promise once again to work against everything that corrupts and destroys God’s people and God’s earth – all that conspires against God’s love for the entire creation.
At the same time, on this same earth, we discover life: the beauty of a mountain vista or a piece of art, re-creation in communities restored, possibility, hope, healing, love renewed, restoration of a polluted stream, justice, peace and all things being made new. It is the ongoing presence of God who promises to restore the earth and establish his reign of love through us. We commit again this day just by showing up here to be such followers of Jesus. Big transitions – it is what we are about, moving from death to life, with Jesus.
Of course, life itself is about transition, that is, leaving what we know and moving toward something new and yet to be. I can remember as a child being terrified when my parents left me at home with a babysitter and having to learn to trust that they would return. Those graduating this spring, along with their parents, know of transition as something exciting, yet there is the unknown of what life will bring that must be faced. It raises some anxiety at times.
It is what we see in the life of the disciples as Jesus leaves them. It is their graduation day. Everything is changing. He will no longer be among them in the way they have known him to be. Having been raised from the dead and then among them for 40 days teaching and preparing them for the future, he now takes his leave. We call it The Ascension. In Jesus’ resurrection God has defeated death and everything that would tear us away from God’s love and one another. In the Ascension, Jesus is held up, that is placed at the helm, the control room if you will, of the entire cosmos. Church language for this is “Lord over all,” as he has “authority over all people” in the words of John’s Gospel.
So why is this significant for us? Today we promise again to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. We vow to organize our life around him and his Good News – that his love carries the day. Which then means of course that we do not organize our life first around a sporting event, college or vocational choices, money, spouses, bosses, or political agendas, but around Jesus and as any of these things fit into his desire for us.
And maybe even more, the Ascension tells us that our lives, even while still on this earth, are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine. Jesus’ great prayer in the Gospel today notes that he “is no longer in the world, but we are in the world.” It means that even as Jesus is no longer among us as a man he now dwells in each of us. He is not only among us, he is in us! And because Jesus’ Spirit is in us, we are left now to be the ongoing presence of Christ in the world. We have work to do.
The celebration of the Ascension moves us from passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix things, to becoming witnesses confident in God’s presence in us. Our baptismal responsibility commissions us to actively participate in the work of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, we go into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, sometimes misunderstood, misjudged, yet also vindicated and celebrating. You go bearing in your body the dying of Jesus to all that opposes God’s love and justice, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed and shown forth in your life as you participate in transforming the whole creation.
Your call is to go wherever God and life takes you, even to the ends of the earth. You are to be witnesses to these things.
A message from the Bishop
Dear Clergy and People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
I encourage all in every parish and worship community to celebrate the Feast of Bishop William Alexander Guerry on Sunday, June 25. This is an excellent opportunity for teaching and for offering a clear historical context for one of the ways we have been at our best in the Episcopal Church as witnesses to the liberating Gospel of Jesus.
Tell the story. Gather folks for a conversation before or after the liturgy. Preach boldly. Materials have been posted on our website that you can use for your bulletins along with propers for the day.
May our eyes and ears be opened that we too might be set free as ambassadors of God’s “healing words of forgiveness.”
Blessings to all in Christ,
Detail of Ascension icon by Andreas Ritzos (1421-1492), via Wikimedia Commons
The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Summerville
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” the “they” meaning, you, me and especially today the two young people being confirmed. That’s as good a vision statement as there is. Life abundant, to the full, maximized, being the person created each of us to be. It was way back in the 2nd century that Bishop Tertullian said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
I trust it goes without saying that the abundant life Jesus promises does not mean possessions, money or stock portfolios. We recognize the lie in the two-page spread of the Volvo advertisement that says above a picture of a beautiful car: “Meet your salvation.” And even though we might chuckle, we know the untruth of the line on the t-shirt that says: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Yes?
When have you felt most full, a moment when your cup was running over? I think of my daughter’s wedding a couple of years ago with my heart nearly bursting out of my chest and saying to the people attending: “Gathered here this night are most of the people I love most in the world.” I also recall standing in an orphanage in downtown Amman, Jordan holding in my arms a wounded Iraqi child. She was Jesus and in that moment it was only the longing for love that bound us together. It is that all-embracing abundant love that is called forth in God’s people as we celebrate these Great 50 days of Easter.
So what are the implications of the abundant life Jesus gives for this community here at Good Shepherd? Why do you exist? For what purpose are you here as a parish?
Have you ever, while driving around, noticed various church signs, you know, the ones with messages on them? I do a lot of driving around the Diocese and come across many, some better than others. One read: “Repent, now is the day of salvation.” Another: “Christ is your fire insurance,” I assume alluding to the threat of burning in hell. I don’t like those kind much. Down the road, from a different denomination: “Mother’s Day is coming. Virtues are learned at mother’s knee, vices at some other joint.” Clever perhaps, but less than stirring. I wonder, what does the world that knows little about Christianity, except for such signs, think about us?
One block down, another church sign: “Big garage sale next Saturday. Cheap prices, great deals!” And then, just down the road in the same town, another sign: “We’ve got room for you at our table. Hospitality practiced here. Everybody welcome.” Nice, the best of all of them. The trouble is it was a sign in front of a restaurant, not a church.
The Jesus we discover today is the one who calls us each by name. It is a statement of profound relational intimacy. This ideal Shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love and reach. He came to tell us that love defeats everything, even death. Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly rescuing people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous, in his kingdom vision where he was always expanding the borders, forever gathering together those the culture tried to separate, forget, dismiss or deem unworthy.
Does it ever strike you that much of our public discourse these days seems bent on limiting borders and trying to decide who we can keep out? We’ve even had laws proposed in this country where it would be an illegal act to give water or any kind of aid to an undocumented person – someone who, by the way, Jesus knows by name. I am very concerned, and I hope you are too, by rhetoric that seems to be increasing in volume that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay – language that diminishes us and makes us smaller. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, general intolerance and even domestic hate groups are significantly on the rise in this country.
Jesus, in his continued teaching about the Kingdom of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different than this. Christ the Shepherd teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is a Shepherd who not only desires that there be one flock that knows of the love of the Shepherd, he is willing to leave all of them just to find the one that is lost. It raises the question for us always to be considering – what kind of community we are building here at Good Shepherd and what kind of vision we are giving to this community, our neighborhood?
Today, with the confirmands, we again have the opportunity to reconnect to our baptismal reality in Christ, to “respect the dignity of every human being,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “seek and serve Christ in allpersons.” According to Jesus we have a God who is a bit reckless and extravagant with his love. It makes us a bit nervous. It got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included who we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have. I wonder – if we were more clear about this kind of dangerous Jesus, living on the edges, might we be a bit more attractive institution because we actually acted out of our espoused values as a people of the Christ, the Shepherd? That’s what folks of the Z generation in the 19-29 age range seem to be telling us!
All of us are called to serve out beyond these walls, the places where we live and move and have our being. The world will know we are a people of our word when we exhibit in “word and example” the costly, wild, reckless, self-abandoned love that takes shape in our deeds as we walk this earth. This is the love of the Shepherd. It is abundant – and the world is hungry for it.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.