Easter 7/Ascension (24/05/2020)

WELCOME TO WORSHIP WITH THE BARWON HEADS & OCEAN GROVE CONGREGATIONS

This service was streamed live via Zoom on May 24th at 10am

Below is the entire text for a service of worship for home use while the ban on public worship is in place.  Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate may use this material at any time for their private devotions.  If “two or three” are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church. 

There  are also links to YouTube files for music and, should you rather listen than read, sound files for the text, including the sermon .  [I’m sorry about the commercials that sometimes come with YouTube clips. Be sure to click on the “Skip Ad” box when it appears in the lower right of the YouTube clip]   When a YouTube clip has finished, simply click on the back button of  your browser to return to this page. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.

CALL TO CELEBRATION 

In this safe place let us be together.  For here together we will weave the threads of our lives into a wondrous vision; a bright new tapestry of dreams of times to come.  So let us celebrate the richness and diversity of life in the presentness of the God.

As a workman gathers his tools, as a poet gathers her images, as a musician gathers his band,  as a scholar gathers her arguments, as a writer gathers his stories, as a preacher gathers her texts,  so God gathers people for service.

PRAYER OF AWARENESS

Spinner, weaver of our lives, your loom is love. May we who are gathered here be empowered by that love to weave new patterns of truth and justice into a web of life that is strong, beautiful, and everlasting. 

HYMN 227 “When Morning Gilds the Skies”  (click here to listen)

JOURNEY INTO SILENCE    

     Meditation“Landscape” by David Best. 

Our hills are not silent but shout tall; our rivers sing their own song to southern seas. Our birds have no foreign language; our light has its own brightness. Our night the black of homely black; our sun warms. Our wind cleans bodies which are moulded here and splendidly self-soiled. Our sweat waters the earth and gives hearty growth, filling our geography with the art and dreams which spill from our being and shapes our clay. When will we learn that imported wisdom is a landscape of little joy?

Silence

In this time silence may we move from busy-ness to quietness… (30 seconds of Silence)…God of life, God of peace, God of wonders that will not cease… be present with us now.

WE REFLECT ON OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

L: Let us confess how far we have strayed from Christ and his ways. Let us pray. For the times when we forget Christ and value each other by the outward trappings of social status, power and wealth: Lord have mercy.

R: Lord have mercy.

L: For the times when we applaud the humility and sacrifice of Jesus yet we live by the rules of people like Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate: Christ have mercy

R: Christ have mercy.

L: For the times when we even try to measure our faith by success as it is measured by this arrogant yet lost and bewildered world, Lord have mercy.

R: Lord have mercy.

L: God of mercies, heaped up and full to overflowing, please continue to have pity on our flatulent ambitions and degraded methods of dealing with the pressures of life. By your Spirit bring us to our senses, re-establish our souls in the fields of your grace, and banish forever the shame that would eat away our peace and let us back into sin. Through Christ Jesus our redeemer. Amen!

THE ASSURANCE

L: It is written for all time: “Through Christ we have redemption…, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of Christ’s grace lavished upon us.” My sisters and brothers, hear this gospel, trust this gospel, for it is forever yours; and so I declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.

R:Thanks be to God!

INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE READINGS

Some years ago, Charles Templeton (a one-time evangelist turned atheist) wrote a book that had someone finding a skeleton in Jerusalem that turned out to be Jesus. In the book, the church was desperately concerned that such a discovery would destroy Christianity, because it would prove that Christ’s bodily resurrection was fiction. I remember thinking at the time – what’s the big deal? Such a discovery wouldn’t damage my faith at all. And as I now read this passage from the Book of Acts and remember Templeton’s book, I find my thoughts haven’t changed. Like so much biblical truth, the message is contained in the story. Jesus’ earthly ministry is done. Now it is the Christ that works in us through the Spirit. No, I’m not calling Luke a liar. The “men of Galilee” were Jewish and expressed their convictions in stories rather than propositions. If anything, this truth is more powerful and persuasive because it comes to us as a story rather than as a set of objectively provable (or disprovable) facts.

FROM THE EARLY CHURCH – Acts 1:1-11 

1-5 Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said good-bye to the apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. After his death, he presented himself alive to them in many different settings over a period of forty days. In face-to-face meetings, he talked to them about things concerning the kingdom of God. As they met and ate meals together, he told them that they were on no account to leave Jerusalem but “must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptised in water; you will be baptised in the Holy Spirit. And soon.”

When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?”

7-8 He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

9-11 These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, “You Galileans! Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly and mysteriously as he left.”

FROM THE GOSPELS – Luke 24:44-53

44 Then he said, “Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.”

45-49 He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. He said, “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations, starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses. What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”

50-51 He then led them out of the city over to Bethany. Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven.

52-53 And they were on their knees, worshiping him. They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy. They spent all their time in the Temple praising God. Yes.

HYMN 369  “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” (click here to listen)

A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS   “Gone Where?”

“As Jesus was blessing his disciples, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”  (Luke 24:51)

When the Sunday closest to Ascension Day rolls around, it always poses a dilemma for me: Do I skip the Sunday readings and read the story of Jesus rising into heaven? Or give the Ascension a miss? In my services last year Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven, nor did he the year before or the year before that; probably because I liked the lessons for the Seventh Sunday of Easter better, and because…. well….the Ascension is …er… ‘tricky.’ 

As scholars do from time to time, particularly since the early 19th century, there’s currently a lot of interest in trying to use the methods of historians rather than religious scholars to see if the ‘real’ Jesus can somehow be discovered. What prompts these outbursts of academic effort?  At least part of the reason is to be found in stories like the Ascension; stories that are just too outrageous for educated, modern, cause-and-effect folks like us to take seriously. According to some of the people who are intent on recovering the ‘historical’ Jesus, the church is encrusted with outdated, pre-scientific gunk. We need a little dose of historical research to be refreshed. They will be quick to tell you that the Ascension never happened. It was a story, they say, that the church made up, based on even earlier stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of prophets ascending into the clouds. If you had been there with your camcorder with the disciples on that day, there would have been nothing to record, no feet of Jesus getting ever smaller as they rose away into the sky. 

Well, that’s fine with me. I’m a scientist and I like history, too. Give me a good documentary and some popcorn and I’m happy. But that’s in my lounge room, not in the pulpit. It’s not a preacher’s job to take the Bible’s mysterious stories and make sense of them, to get rid of the strangeness or the wildness or the unpredictability. If a story is mysterious, then the church needs to practice being mystified, not jump as quickly as possible to some explanation that removes all the shadows as well as the light. 

From my scientific point of view, there really is not much hope trying to make sense of the ascension story.  With our enlightened understanding of the universe, no longer do we have a three-layer, hamburger universe, consisting of heaven, earth, and hell. In that primitive view of the universe, ‘up’ to heaven made sense, and ‘down’ to hell made sense. These days we know about an immense cosmos, of billions of suns and planets, all expanding and developing from one mighty moment of creation.  

So we’re not going to spend any time today wondering about the ‘how’ of the Ascension: whether Jesus rose into the sky like a helium balloon or a space shuttle. Neither am I interested in the ‘why’ of the Ascension, although there is a stack of theology about it that is both interesting and useful. Instead, we’re going to look at a different gift in the story; and to receive the gift, we have to think about the story in a new way. 

There is a tale about two coyotes told by the Nez Perce Indians? 

Two coyotes went up the river and they came to a big ledge. From there they saw people living below near the river. The two friends said to each other, “You go ahead.” “No, you go.” And for a long time, they argued. Then one said, “You go first. They will see you, and they will say, ‘The coyote is going on the trail.'” 

“I’m not a coyote,” the second coyote said. 

“But you’re the same as I am,” the first coyote said. “We’re the same in every way, and we’re both coyotes.” 

“No,” the second coyote said. And they argued. Then the second coyote said, “You go first.” 

They were on a ridge that the people below could see. So the first coyote walked on. He went over the small ridge, and the people below said to each other, “That coyote is going upstream.” And they came out and watched the coyote going. 

“See,” the first coyote called back to his friend, “What did they say? They called me ‘coyote.’ You come too. And they’re going to say the same to you. You are a coyote.” 

“They won’t,” said the second coyote. “But all right, I’ll go.” And he slowly started walking on the trail.  When the people saw the second coyote, they said, “Ah, another one.” 

“See,” said the second coyote. “I’m not a coyote. I’m ‘another one.'” 

Like the story of the two coyotes, the story of Jesus’ Ascension contains things we will only see if we stop assuming, like the historians, that we know what we’re going to find. 

We don’t celebrate the Ascension because it’s forty days after Easter and that’s what the church is supposed to do. We don’t celebrate the Ascension because the creed says Jesus rose into heaven to sit on the right hand of God. We celebrate the Ascension because we’re no different from the early church who gathered around this story from the beginning to hear what they needed: the news that they were going to receive power. And perhaps even more importantly, we celebrate this day to be reminded that we have no power of our own and never have. 

There the disciples were a fragile little community, anxious and bewildered, watching their Lord leave them, but they aren’t distraught and sad. When it’s all over, they’re worshipping with joy. They had an advantage over us. They knew they had no power of their own. 

Any power they would ever know would be given to them by the Spirit, and they aren’t even told when or how. Someone in the group does ask the practical question; someone in a group always does. He or she asks Jesus, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” It’s not a faith question; it’s a political question. It’s the question you ask when your candidate comes out on top and you want to know when the platform is going to be implemented. It’s the wrong question to be asking, of course, but it’s always all right with Jesus to ask the wrong question. “God knows the answer, but we don’t get to,” Jesus says. “Stop worrying about having things the way you want them and wait for something else, a power that is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it.” We live in an era and in a nation which is deluded by the notion that everything is up to us. To join a church is to stand up and heckle that idea, making Ascension Day perhaps the perfect day to welcome new members into a congregation. Whenever people gather around a baptismal font, they publicly proclaim that they rely on a power beyond themselves, that they believe in God whose love and strength sustains them in all things. 

In the Presbyterian Book of Order are these words: 

All ministry in the church is a gift from Jesus Christ. Members and officers alike are under the mandate of Christ, who is the chief minister of all. Jesus’ ministry is the basis of all ministries, the ministry of “…one who came not to be served but to serve.” 

One of my minister friends tells a story about a couple who came to see him with regard to possibly joining the church. He was excited about it until he felt the conversation turn into an interview. The couple wanted to know just what Uniting Church was going to do for them and for their children. The pastor brought them to sudden silence by asking, “What are you planning to do for the Uniting Church?” Soon they left, never to be seen again. 

All ministry, including church membership, is a gift from Jesus Christ. Without the gift, without the empowering Spirit that Jesus promised to the disciples at his Ascension, we can do nothing. We can make no claim. And nothing that we try to do that is all our idea and not God’s can finally prosper in the end. Oh, our projects can certainly go a long way before they finally fade. A program or ministry or piece of polity that is our doing and not the Spirit’s can look very successful and garner much support. But if something is not a work of the Spirit, it will die when our power or energy to make it happen dies. The work of the Spirit, on the other hand, never comes to an end. God will accomplish what God sets out to do and will make use of us and our witness along the way. 

Ascension Day is the day to remember that it’s the Spirit at work in the church that makes all manner of impossible things possible; things a good deal more mystifying than Jesus rising into the air. Things like the woman who knew she couldn’t face it when her husband became critically and terminally ill, who awoke each morning for months wanting to fall apart and disappear. But she didn’t. She survived and met what came each day. And not only that, when she looks back, she knows she didn’t do it alone because facing her husband’s death was not something she could possibly have done. 

By the power of the Spirit of God, a man who had been addicted to alcohol for more than half his years stopped drinking and stayed sober. And when peopled asked him how he did it, the first thing he says is he didn’t. 

By the power of the Spirit of God, a Mexican priest took communion to the people of a town whose church was overrun with soldiers. They shot at anyone who came near, but the priest came forward to enter the church. They shot at the ground around his feet, and overcome with fear, he started to leave, but then stopped, came back again, and moved forward while the town watched. His courage, which was not his alone, inspired others to fall in step beside him until there was a collection of unarmed people moving toward the church. The startled soldiers no longer had the will to do them harm so great was the complete helplessness of the power that was evident among them. So the soldiers stood aside and the people shared the communion of our Lord, something that moments earlier had been impossible made possible by the power of God alone.

Let us pray:  Gift-giving God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, open our minds to the mystery of faith and the liberating word that the Gospel is still moving out through the simplest actions of people no different from us. We give you thanks for the story of Jesus’ Ascension and the freeing awareness that we can rely on a power beyond our own. Send your blessing, we pray, on the church universal, where our questions find welcome, where there is light for our darkness, and hope for things that would indeed be impossible if we had only ourselves on which to rely. Amen.

HYMN 371 “God is Gone Up on High” (click here to listen) 

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

Holy Friend, loving God and Saviour, we pray to you, both when we are at our wits end and on those days when we feel reasonably capable and competent. We ask you to bless our attempts in aiding all the lonely, suffering, bewildered, and grieving people on earth.

Yet our efforts, even at their best, towards loving our neighbours are piecemeal. Sometimes, in spite of our good intentions, our efforts are ill advised and ill directed.

Please do for our fellow human beings all that we cannot do for each other. May no child of earth face distress or calamity on their own.

Please guide and bless those who seem to have the knack of loving others in appropriate, practical ways. Give each of us the commitment and wisdom to express our compassion more wisely and lovingly.

Loving God, to you all persons are precious. Teach us your ways. Let no person be forgotten, none neglected, none despised, and none judged as unworthy of the best care that is available.

Bring the day nearer when your people on earth may be more like a community of grace, mercy and peace.  Through Christ Jesus. our Brother and Lord, who taught us to pray:  “Our Father…”

THE LORD’S PRAYER

HYMN 228 “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (click here to listen)

WORDS OF MISSION

Let us embrace the wonder of this week with expectation and imagination. Be still and let God’s peace wash over you like waves lapping over stones, smoothing rough edges of seemingly insurmountable worries to tiny insignificant grains of sand, leaving smooth shining love.

BENEDICTION

May you be wholly present in your own life, ready to be surprised by the wonder of each ordinary moment. Go in peace.  May the earth be warm under your feet, the rain bring the gentle flowers of the bush bright around you, and the wind blows as the breath of the Spirit before you.  Amen.

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