The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday, May 24, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in our sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

On Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  If you’re a linear thinker and have been following the lectionary, you have experienced some whiplash when you heard today’s gospel reading. On Thursday, we remembered the story in Acts when Jesus ascends to heaven, and then today, we jump back in time to just before the crucifixion.

For those of you who might need a brief refresher, the story of Jesus’ ascension is found at the beginning of the book of Acts. Jesus has been resurrected and reunited with his disciples and has spent forty days with them.  This is why we celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday not today.  I find it hard to believe, but this past Thursday was forty days after Easter.

So Jesus has been with his disciples for forty days and now they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The text doesn’t say this, but I wonder if Jesus’ heart sank as he realized they still didn’t understand. Did he feel like a failure? Did he wonder if he should hang around a bit longer and try to explain everyone one more time?

Because it seems to me that every time Jesus tries to explain what he is planning to accomplish, the disciples listen, nod their heads and then go right back to their original paradigm.  “That’s all really cool Jesus, but now we’re going to take back our kingdom, right?”

We can only guess what Jesus is feeling based on what he says which is something like, “Stop obsessing over dates and times, that’s God’s job, not yours,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (8)

And then, we are told, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (9)

Jesus disappears and now all the disciples are staring up into the sky unable to believe what has just happened. Then two men in white robes appear and ask, “what are you doing staring up into the sky?”

I imagine it was actually a terrifying and confusing moment to experience, but as a reader, I find it hilarious to imagine all these men with shocked looks on their faces staring up into an empty sky, and then, startled by the question from the men in white, trying to explain what they’ve just experienced.

We know that gradually the disciples did begin to make sense of all of these experiences, but it didn’t happen right away.

And that may be in part because of all the ways their lives keep changing over a short period of time.  Constant change is exhausting, disorienting, disheartening. We don’t tend to do our best thinking in those sorts of circumstances.

From the time they first met Jesus they began to develop a set of expectations – a set of expectations we see in their question to Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Those expectations were dashed when Jesus was crucified. Jesus was gone, dead, and before they could even really wrap their head around that reality, Jesus was alive again. And through the next 40 days they began to hope again, began to imagine a future with Jesus again, and then, in a moment, he’s gone.

They had developed a sense of what it meant to be a follower of a physically present Jesus, but they did not yet understand what it would mean to follow Jesus without actually being physically present with Jesus.

It was possible that the whole movement would fall apart at that moment, but it doesn’t. In fact, as they begin to figure out what it means to follow Jesus Christ without the physical presence of Jesus Christ the movement strengthens and grows rapidly.

When he was physically present with them, Jesus kept trying to explain things to his followers and they kept missing the point. It was only after he ascended that they began to reflect on all the things he had said and began to make sense of them.

I wonder why they didn’t do that work when Jesus was present but I suspect that oftentimes, we avoid difficult questions until we have no choice but to answer them.

Right now, we’re all having to figure out what life looks like without what was once a central focus of our lives of faith – gathering in this building.  What does it mean to live a faithful life without that experience?

What might we have been missing, what tough questions, or God filled experiences might we all have been avoiding when we had public worship gatherings readily available?

Jesus has never needed a Sunday worship experience in order to connect with his people.  We’ve always known this; we haven’t always practiced it.  We have vast riches of ways to connect with God from walking outdoors, to journaling, to the rhythms of contemplative prayer practices like the examen or evening prayer.

What might we discover – or – rediscover in this time so that not only are we able to feed our souls now, but, when public worship does resume again, that we will see it as a beautiful addition to an already full banquet table, instead of the only thing on the menu?

I wouldn’t have wished a pandemic on anyone, and the possibility of new fruit doesn’t diminish how bone shatteringly hard this experience has been and continues to be but I hope we will continue to ask the questions anyway.

The disciples and the stories of the early Jesus movement that we find in Acts give me hope that if we choose to engage this time with curiosity, we may emerge with a richer and deeper and more balanced understanding of what it means to be followers of Christ.

Engaging this time with curiosity doesn’t have to mean doing more, it doesn’t have to look like productivity, it doesn’t have to look like adding 10 new contemplative practices to your day.

But it could mean stopping to notice what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, and to say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about.”

So that was Thursday and today is Sunday and the lectionary jumps back to an event that happens before the crucifixion.

As part of our daily 5pm online prayer service, we read the gospel for the coming Sunday and through that I am reminded of how different it is to read silently and to read something aloud. I am hearing the cadences of John’s gospel in a new way as I try to wrap my tongue around his words on a daily basis.  It’s one of my “huh, that’s interesting discoveries.”

John’s writing style is very different from say Mark’s. John’s writing style is particularly difficult to read aloud – if he’d invited me to edit his gospel I would have said, “John, you are way too wordy.  Try to say what you mean in a single sentence, instead of repeating it with only slight variations over three or four sentences.”

But he did not ask me.

And it seems that the creators of our lectionary also thought John could use an editor because they made the rather unusual choice to end our reading less than halfway through Jesus’ prayer. I wonder if they looked at the second half of the prayer and thought “this is all rather repetitive. Let’s just end it partway through.”

The prayer is 25 verses long, but our reading ends at verse 11.

Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel are known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. In these chapters we see Jesus spending time with his disciples trying to prepare them for his death.

Which is no easy task.

In one of my favourite scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two characters are talking about the death of their mothers.  One character asks the other, “Was it sudden?” And the response is, “No, and yes. It’s always sudden.”

Death, even one you think you are prepared for, is always sudden.

But Jesus is trying to prepare them. He is doing his best to make sure they have everything they need to walk through the dark and confusing times they are about to encounter.

And as part of that process, Jesus prays.

Jesus was a person of prayer and so it’s only natural that he would end these discourses with prayer. This prayer is, as prayer always is, a conversation between the pray-er and God.

But Jesus is also aware that he has an audience and so this prayer works on two levels – as a conversation with God, and as good news for the disciples.

Later, when they begin to think back on this time and remember what Jesus told them, they would also remember the words of this prayer.  A prayer that says things like, “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (6)

In dark moments, when they begin to doubt, they can remember Jesus’s affirmation that they belong to God and have been faithful to God.

This idea repeats throughout the prayer, the disciples belong to God.

God didn’t really need this reminder, but how comforting this repeated idea must have been for the disciples in moments of dark and doubt. May it be a comfort to us as well – we are God’s people too.  We belong to God.

I said earlier that this prayer is repetitive, but I think that is part of its brilliance.  In its repetitiveness it begins to take on the cadence of a chant or a mantra or a Taizé song.

There are some things we need to be told more than once – especially during hard times.  I need to be told over and over and over again that I belong, that I matter, that I am loved.

And this is what Jesus does, he says the same thing, with only slight variations over and over again – you belong to God.

I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter this week, read it as a prayer, read it more than once.

The entire prayer ends, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (26)

This is my prayer for all of us this week. May each one of us know that we are filled with God’s love, and may that love pour out of each one of us throughout the coming week.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.