Sunday 24 May 2020

We are pausing to acknowledge and grow in the presence of God in our lives. We are meeting as part of a church community, albeit a scattered one. We are stilling ourselves, our fears, our anxieties, and all the distracting things around us, to seek and delight in God’s life with us. Let us worship God!

We are called into worship today with words from Psalm 68

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.

As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God. But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy. Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds— his name is the LORD— be exultant before him.

Prayer on the Way (This prayer is ‘borrowed’ from the website [leadingworship] of a Mennonite pastor from Canada, Rev Carol Penner.)

I seek you, God, in the spaces of my life.

The spaces between what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone.

The spaces between my convictions and my actions,

the spaces between all that I hoped to do, and what I’ve actually done.

I come with humility, knowing that I can’t always see the way I’ve disappointed you,

nor can I always see the long-term effects of the good I’ve done.

This is a prayer for the road ahead, which is an empty space stretching before me.

Fill me with a burning compassion for my brothers and sisters, a love that will not let me go.

Give me courage to give boldly, love simply, hope deeply, risk greatly.

My light is small, my time is short, but let it shine for you, always, ever, all for you. Amen.

Bible Readings: Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11

Reflection: by Martin Stewart

At Eastertime I was thinking about the view from the cross. Not the landscape – the Lord was not sight-seeing! The people-scape. Before him, the collective of people at the foot of the cross – some with their backs to him, others looking for one last miracle, others with broken faces as they wept their tears. Plus, another whole dimension of seeing: could he also see past and future from that vantage point? I like to think that he saw me, and you, from that vantage point. That the crisis of the cross would one day have an impact, not only on my life, or your life – but that all human suffering would be caught up in his suffering. And, we would know that we are met by a God who suffers for us, holds us, serves us, loves us, and blesses us. That was the Friday of Easter, then came Resurrection Day and hello, this and much much more just might be so!

This Thursday just past was Ascension Day. The 40th day of Easter. Let me tell you from the outset that I struggle, hugely, with the idea of Jesus rising into the clouds. I can’t imagine how that even begins to work out, as I don’t think of heaven as up, for when I point up, a person on the other side of the globe, who is pointing up, has a finger waving in the opposite direction! As I said in the Wednesday notes, I confess that I have not had a great interest in saying much about the ascension over the years. In thinking about why I haven’t said much is because I have a struggle finding my way past the depictions of ascension as they were represented in all the circles, I grew up in. To put it bluntly, there were far too many unhelpful pictures of a Scandinavian Jesus drifting up into the clouds for my liking! However, now that I am a grown up, I’m learning to look at this differently, rather than literally. And, obviously, I wasn’t there, thus I don’t know what the disciples saw other than what they have told of what they saw – and how are you really meant to find the language for something that is impossible to conceive? But I do accept that the Risen Jesus had to have done something to disappear from the physical experience people had had of him…he had to drift away from them. I also accept what the theologians of the church have come to a general consensus on – that Jesus came from, and returned, to the Godhead somehow, and, that his presence continues with us in the Spirit, somehow.

In that ‘in the Godhead sense’, Jesus is with us still, but not appearing through locked doors in upper rooms in Jerusalem, or on the road to Emmaus, or on the banks of the lake at breakfast time… he had to disappear. However, the ins and outs of how ascension actually works… well, I really don’t know. We can’t know. And so we don’t talk about it much. Ditto with a lot of things, by the way. We don’t know how a lot of things work. But the hand of Jesus still at work in the life of people tells us that there is more going on than we can explain. And don’t we have faith enough, to believe enough, that the life of God is among us enough, and that that seems to be enough, if you know what I mean? And I am interested in the view. The view as he ascends. I wonder, what, as Son of God, he gets to see behind. Can he see all the way back to the Word that was in the beginning, hovering over the deep and crying out and bringing the universe into being? In his ascending, I imagine him being able to see all that way back. Isn’t that quite possible when you are no longer constrained by the limitations of flesh and blood and time and space? I picture him ascending and seeing 40 days back to a tomb, and then before that to an agonising last cry on the cross, and then across Jerusalem and Judah and Galilee and Egypt and Babylon, and prophets and kings, and the sea parting, and a burning bush, and Canaan, and a wandering Aramean hearing a voice speak in the desert, and a flood, and a garden, and the lands and seas taking form, as what we would call Gondwanaland began to separate.

And let’s dare to go further, as we see stars and galaxies taking form as the whole universe snaps into life in a crescendo of light. Quite a view! And I wonder if his whispered ‘Amen’ spoken over those tumultuous millions of years, does something in that act of rising, to tie the past together to make them one in love as he is one in God’s three-in-one – an eternal dance of love. I wonder also what he could see ahead. If he could see the beginning what would he see as an ending? And, was his ‘Amen’ an announcement of love over whatever ‘next’ looked like, all the way to the completion of all things? I believe it to be so. I believe we are to understand ourselves caught up in this eternal love

And thereby picture ourselves seen from the heights of cross and ascension – our ‘particular-ness’ and our ‘part-of-everything-ness’ seen, and valued. All caught up in Eternal Love: God’s big YES from the beginning to the end, and over everything in between; even the ugly and the horrible are swept into love in a way that we cannot possible imagine because we are immersed in the thickness of things, and we have such a limited view of the whole. We need a vantage point, and where we stand is a way too low, we can’t see the wood for the trees. Most people can’t see beyond their own troubles, let alone their neighbours, let alone the good of the whole. We need a vantage point, and so we look to where Jesus is – ascended – and we find our footing in faith, and hope, and love. By the way, I think that that footing is sufficient. We learn to craft our lives in the space where faith and hope and love can work their magic. ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…’ Ephesians 2:4,6 ‘What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? …It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? …I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ [from Romans 8:31-39] God’s YES.

The view from the clouds – the beginning, the ending, and all in between is held in love. Now, I have spent quite a lot of time painting a kind of cosmic picture, but to be honest, I am only really interested in exploring this way of seeing for its earthly usefulness. I think I come from the school of thought that recognises that some people have their heads in the clouds and aren’t of much earthly use! It even might surprise you to hear a minister of the church say that what is beyond me isn’t really my concern, if it appears to be an escape from reality. But that is how I see things. I don’t invest in cosmic things in order to avoid reality, or excuse myself from my responsibilities. I just happen to think that the big picture view ‘from up high’ informs how we can better be present here. It provides a framework. I get to know ‘how’ and ‘what’ to get about doing because of the ‘why’.

Thus, if I was an African slave in America seeking to make my way through the day without giving into despair, I would fasten onto the big hope of the gospel (that the slave-owners had passed on but entirely missed!): ‘Hold on,’ I would sing, ‘keep your hand on that plough and hold on!’ And, if I was a child with abusive parents, I would want to know that there is a future coming, and it will grab me and lift me up. And if I was in my dying days I would want to know that what I fear is not the full story. And every day when I wake up, I would want to know that this is the day that love has come to town and is calling me to join in its song. I think that is what the ascension means to me – that what comes from God meets us here, and is lifted back into God, and its ripples keep being played out in our daily lives in such a way that we can overcome, and be turned around, and the ugly can be made beautiful, and the light will shine in the darkness, and the life goes on, and what we think are dead ends are opportunities, and God meets us on the road – always.

Offering & Prayer for the Road

Collectively now at this moment as we turn our hearts and minds outwards let us be grateful for God’s ongoing gifts, the many different ways we experience the generosity of God, and be grateful that many of us can still give to the ongoing life and work of our church community in various ways and dedicate ourselves to the presence of God in our various lockdown spaces.

Our Prayer for the Road Adapted from a prayer from the Iona Community Worship Book, 2017.

With the disruption of Covid-19 and the ensuing simmering below the surface of many things – some of which are now beginning to come to light – some pleasant and some nastier! This prayer seems appropriate. We are not alone, God is with us but we are not to be passive in our living into the ways of God. God, where are you and what is your call to us?

Creator of this world and all its people,

We are glad that all things are held in your hands.

You have not left us alone.

And we celebrate the work of your Spirit

Encouraging people the world over

To stand up for justice and peace,

To speak for the voiceless

And always anticipate

That the best is yet to come!

If, however,

We have driven a wedge between piety and peacemaking,

Erected a wall between prayer and politics,

Associated the purposes of heaven

With only the gentler things of earth – God of justice, Show yourself!

If we have offered to pretenders

The devotion you alone deserve;

If we have dismissed the Gospel

As irrelevant to the world – God of justice, Show yourself!

If we have dumbed down your Word

And domesticated your Spirit

Because we wanted an easier faith

And a tamer dove – God of justice, Show yourself!

Wherever in our nations

The poor are endangered,

The sick are neglected,

Prisoners are refused redemption,

And strangers among us are treated with suspicion – God of justice, Show yourself!

Wherever in our world,

The lust for profit

Undermines the value of human life;

Or the greed for power Overrides the need for fairness – God of justice, Show yourself!

In the social worker

And the mediator,

In vigils for peace

And protests to protect the earth;

To all who fear for the future of children,

To those who long for a different day – God of justice, Show yourself!

We pray in Jesus’ name and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Go into your week confident of God’s strong arms around you, resting in the sweetness of God’s love every moment of the day and night, Amen.