A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday/C • May 8, 2016
Click here to listen to the sermon being preached
Morning Has Broken
“Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Singing that song this morning, I think of what a various experience waking up is. My first morning in Albany, waking up was a shock. We’d gotten in late, improvised a bed on a blow up mattress while we waited for the movers, gone to bed exhausted and excited, expecting to sleep late. We hadn’t counted on the dog walker at 5:30 AM, causing our dog to bark like a maniac. We hadn’t counted on the movers arriving early of the so we were dragged into the morning suddenly, abruptly. That’s one kind of morning. Of course, there are the slow mornings; the ones you wake up before your eyes open. If you are beyond a certain age, you take inventory before admitting morning has broken. There are the happy, excited mornings: Christmas, perhaps, or a special day. There are the mornings you dread because something you worried about is imminent.
The record of the first Christians includes a morning they woke up, like the first morning: a moment when they felt Jesus present but gone, when his ministry began to be through them, when they looked inward instead of outward for him. This is Ascension Sunday and Ascension means morning has broken, like the first morning, like a new day. What are we to do with this new time?
We read in Luke’s story of the ascension how Jesus gathered his disciples outside the city, walking and talking with him, appearing long after he had been crucified, and then leaving them, just as Elijah had left. While they are still staring, heaven asks: why are you standing around? Jesus is gone; he will return in power and glory, just as he told you. It’s a new day: morning has broken and this is the first day of the rest of your discipleship.
Many years later, Paul, or someone writing in his name, wrote to churches around the city of Ephesus. I can’t help imagining him writing to us. What would he say? What he says to them first is: thank God for you! Who gives thanks for us, for this church, this congregation? I think it is so easy for us to take this church for granted. Perhaps the first and most important responsibility of membership s to thank God for our church, for the brothers and sisters in Christ here, with us, worshipping, sharing, caring.
I know there are many others who give thanks for this church as well. Every week a long list of groups meet here, from small gatherings to the ones that fill Palmer Hall. How often someone stops me from one of the groups to say, “Thank you for letting us be here.”
Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians because they are emblems of faith and love; their love is Christ’s invitation, just as our is as well. All ll churches advertise in some way. We put things on Facebook, we occasionally put an ad in the newspaper. We invite people in a general way.
But nothing is more inviting than personal testimony. Think of yourself: what’s the difference between seeing a commercial and having a friend say, “Hey, you have to try this…”? One study years ago suggested 80% of first time visitors at churches went because someone invited them. It went on to say that invitations from lay people were far more effective than those from pastors. It may be that those of us in the profession are just not good at inviting but I think the reality is that pastors are seen as people doing their job, another kind of commercial, while a friend, a lay person, is seen as more authentic.
So as the power of Christ begins to work in churches, the first effect is that it transforms Christians into people who are known for their faith and love. It’s not an invitation to something immediate and final, it’s an invitation to a journey.
The Eyes of Our Hearts
The second point made here has made me think all week about how faith and love work, how Christ works in us. It’s a long sentence so let’s listen to it again.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. [Ephesians 1:17-19]
An Ongoing Process
Notice that the writer imagines there is an ongoing process at work here. He’s praying that these folks in Ephesus will get a spirit of wisdom, will get a revelation, will get to know Jesus. They aren’t done. They don’t have it all; there’s more to come. Isn’t there a message here for all of us? For how often we act as if we’re finished: we know what we know. How often we’ve acted as if there are hard lines in faith life: now we are converted, now we are a church member, now we know. Instead, Ephesians asks us to imagine a series of mornings breaking, over and over, offering new days each day in which we more fully know Christ, more fully receive the wisdom that helps us understand and see God working in the world.
Anne Lamott alludes to this in her book, Stitches. She says,
“Many people did help me to stand up in July 1986 when I stopped drinking.
it turned out that some of the sober people who mentored me through sobriety’s monkey mazes had not been housebroken for long… They taught me that I would often not get my way, which was good for me but would feel terrible, and that life was erratic, beautiful and impossible. They taught me that maturity was the ability to live with unresolved problems. They taught me—or tried to teach me—humility. This was not my strong suit.[Excerpt From: Anne Lamott. “Stitches.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/XS2IN.l]
Humility is the doorway to understanding God as the streak of light in the unfolding morning breaking of each day.
This is what Ephesians means by saying, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you”. So often we have imagined God in some hierarchy: the man—or woman!—upstairs, while we work out our lives here. Ephesians invites us to a different look, to know God instead of knowing about God. It’s a critical difference. Knowing about God is a bunch of ideas and statements that try to give us some certainty; creeds that try to define a boundary of belief. Knowing God is an experience. It is opening our eyes to the new day, imagining its possibilities. This is the hope the writer mentions: the hope to which we are called.
Knowing God Day by Day
What does this look like? A friend of mine described it well, speaking about her grandparents.
the world of my father’s parent’s was an island of calm anchored in a deep and abiding faith and I loved to go visit them. They lived in a Victorian house that had a sun porch with a swing and a view of a street lined with Maple and Chestnut trees. Even their view of the world seen from that swing seemed totally peaceful. …They faced a multitude of challenges in life, but they faced them all with a sense of peace and calm.
They lost one of their sons, and two grandchildren. One of their daughters-in-law had suffered a debilitating stroke in childbirth leaving her without the ability to speak and severely impaired. An adopted grandchild was removed from his parent’s home until the courts worked out what was best for him after the birth mother, who had put him up for adoption, changed her mind after two years and decided she wanted him back. He returned to the family, confused and hesitant to trust. Through it all the family trusted God to work it all out. [quoted from a Sermon by Nancy Bresette]
This is real hope: knowing God’s presence by seeing in each day a new day with the possibility of experiencing God’s presence in a new way.
Choosing Unfolding Hope
That doesn’t mean the day will be easy; it means that we choose, we can choose, each day between living from ourselves or from, as Ephesians says, “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe”. Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding promise of hearts that are enlightened, lit by the call of Jesus Christ to love each other, to love God. Each day, everyday, invites us to become more full emblems of faith and love
Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding hope of knowing God, just as each day offers moments of beauty that appear and then disappear. We have this choice: we can open the eyes of our heart or blindly blunder through the day. As our hearts are enlightened, as our eyes are opened, we cannot fail to see the process of God’s presence. This is the true reality of Ascension: Christ is risen, Christ is present, no longer with a few, now with all of us. May the power of his call, may the grace of his healing, fill our lives so that indeed we may be an occasion for thanksgiving.