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Ascension Sunday: The 7th Sunday of Easter In Time of Quarantine

Sunday, May 24, 2020, Morning Prayer

 

Alleluia! Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven. Come let us adore him. Alleluia!
Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.
John 17:11

The Invitatory and Psalter

  • V. O Lord, open thou our lips,
  • R. And our mouths shall show forth your praise.
  • V. Glory be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
  • R. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

 

Christ our Passover Pascha nostrum[1] Hymnal 1982 #S49

Alleluia. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; *
therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, *
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; *
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; *
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So also consider yourselves dead to sin, *
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.

Psalm 93

1 The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. *
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
2 your throne is established from of old; *
you are from everlasting.

3 The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; *
the floods lift up their roaring.
4 More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea, *
majestic on high is the LORD!

5 Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, *
O LORD, forevermore.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; *
as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever, Amen

The First Lesson:   Acts 1:1-11   Jesus Ascends

1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Hymn: See, the Conqueror   C. Wordsworth   Hymnal 1982 #215

See the Conqueror mounts in triumph;
see the King in royal state,
riding on the clouds, his chariot,
to his heavenly palace gate!
Hark! the choirs of angel voices
joyful alleluias sing,
and the portals high are lifted
to receive their heavenly King.

He who on the cross did suffer,
he who from the grave arose,
he has vanquished sin and Satan;
he by death has spoiled his foes.
While he lifts his hands in blessing,
he is parted from his friends;
while their eager eyes behold him,
he upon the clouds ascends.

Thou hast raised our human nature
on the clouds to God’s right hand:
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
we by faith behold our own.

The Second Lesson:   Ephesians 1:15-23   With the Eyes of Your Heart

15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I 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, 18so 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, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Hymn: Hail, thou once despised Jesus   Bakewell   Hymnal 1982 #495

Hail, thou once despiséd Jesus!
Hail, thou Galilean King!
Thou didst suffer to release us;
thou didst free salvation bring.

Hail, thou universal Savior,
bearer of our sin and shame!
By thy merit we find favor:
life is given through thy Name

Paschal Lamb, by God appointed,
all our sins on thee were laid:
by almighty love anointed,
thou hast full atonement made.

All thy people are forgiven
through the virtue of thy blood:
opened is the gate of heaven,
reconciled are we with God.

Jesus, hail! enthroned in glory,
there for ever to abide;
all the heavenly hosts adore thee,
seated at thy Father’s side.

There for sinners thou art pleading:
there thou dost our place prepare;
ever for us interceding,
till in glory we appear.

Worship, honor, power, and blessing
thou art worthy to receive;
highest praises, without ceasing,
right it is for us to give.

Help, ye bright angelic spirits,
all your noblest anthems raise;
help to sing our Savior’s merits,
help to chant Emmanuel’s praise

The Gospel Lesson:   Luke 24:44-53   Jesus Says Farewell

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Wait, wait, Jesus – you just got here![2]

I wonder, sometimes, what they thought that morning, or afternoon, whenever it was that Jesus left them for a second time. The stories come down to us from Luke and Acts – two books, same author – that they rejoiced, went back worshipping him and praising God, amazed at what they had just seen. They also expected that it wouldn’t be long now, not much longer. He let the power of sin and death do their worst to him on the cross, beat them by coming back from the empty tomb, and went all around Judea and Galilee showing forth his power again, helping them catch fish, showing them the wounds in his hands and his side, allaying their fears, and bringing them peace. He even teased them on the way up – to heaven, that is – when they asked, “Is this the time you’ll restore the kingdom?” He said, in essence, “That’s up to my dad” – his heavenly father, as we like to say – “but don’t worry, he’s got this. In the meantime, the Spirit’s on its way, so hurry home and tell everybody all about me, get them to repent and forgive.” Then he has angels, no less, send them off, saying, “Whatcha looking at, gawping like hungry birds at the cloudless sky? The way you saw him leave will be the way you see him return.”

“Not long now,” you can imagine them saying as they went home dancing and laughing, “Won’t be long now.”

The stories that come down to us from the earliest days after Jesus walked among his people and showed them what God is really like and how to live and all – the stories that come down to us all say that they expected he was coming back soon. Just gonna go back home, do a little work remotely, get things ready, give y’all a chance to tell everybody to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand, and then I’m coming back the way you saw me go. Not this time as a baby in a manger, helpless and mewling, waiting on the wise men to show up and hiding out from Herod’s death squads. Not as a boy or a young man trying to live into what it means to have the power of God at your fingertips. Not as a new healing preacher walking around, gathering disciples, getting baptized and then tempted, having to figure out this crazy thing called life one lonely step at a time. Nope: this time he’s coming back from clouds descending. No-one’s going to miss it, and anyone that’s not gotten the memo about getting themselves ready for it will be sorry. No, no: it won’t be long now. He will return and restore the kingdom and all will be well and all manner of things, let a thousand gardens blossom and ten thousand flowers bloom, and the whole world say “Amen!”

Of course, as we all know, it didn’t happen that way. Two thousand years, and we’re still waiting – and, as Yogi Berra might’ve said, the thing about waiting is that it takes a while. But as they waited, they, and the millions of others who’ve heard these stories and followed Jesus, changed the world. Generations and civilizations that the first followers of Christ could not have imagined have come to worship and honor, and at times even listen to, the prince of peace, the suffering servant, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the good shepherd, the wise if often enigmatic teacher, the teller of stories and savior of humankind, the bringer of justice and giver of mercy, the healer, the dreamer, the maker of food, the calmer of storms and finder of fish, the guest who is always a little bit of a stranger, and the stranger whom we must always make welcome. In places that did not exist when he lived, and in tongues not even invented after he left, people around the world bear witness, as he asked; preach repentance and forgiveness, as he asked; and celebrate his life, death and resurrection, as he asked. Insofar as human civilization has in it a powerful force that pulls us towards faith, hope, charity, love, and mercy – and against selfishness, greed, cruelty, malice, and despair – that force has Jesus’s name on it, bears his wounds, shares his triumph, and makes him live again. Whenever two or three gather in his name and do as he would do, live as he would live, and love as he would love, it is as if he never left. This, I think, is what he had in mind.

It was not what they had in mind, that first Ascension Day. They wanted what we always want: a great big hero to come down from the sky, smite all the bad people, take charge, and rule over us in an earthly paradise in which he or she does all the work, or at least tells us what to do and how to do it, so we can finally rest, relax, set our burdens down, exhale, and be at peace. Maybe we’d be happy in such a place, at least for a while. I know there are days, weeks, months – years, even – when it’s all I can imagine. Yet we also need, it would seem, a challenge, a project, a responsibility, and a goal – indeed, a series of them – to make us truly fulfilled.

Jesus certainly gave them that. Those who looked up to heaven and heard the angels’ words had their marching orders. Bear witness in my name, teach everyone what I taught you, show them how to live just and loving lives, and in that way change the world. They did that, as best they could, though they found the headwinds stiff at times, and many would die as martyrs in the cause. They preached an impossibility – Christ was raised from the dead, as the scriptures said he would be. Then they preached a second one on top of it – because he did that, we can make our world free of all that is wrong. For better or worse, so many people got tripped up by the former that the followers of Jesus didn’t always have much chance to make a case for the latter.
When they did, they often did well. Too often, alas, they tripped themselves up, fighting over whose doctrine was right and whose lists or readings of scripture were accurate, or who would have control of the money or tell people what they could eat and drink, and when. Sometimes they traded a gospel of love for an institution of power, grasping for earthly rule in the name of the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes they did well even in this, but too often they did not. All the innocent blood spilled in Jesus’s name, or that of Christ, or that of ‘the Mother and the Child’ as the Inka came to understand the faith of their conquerors, cries to heaven and down through the ages. It is no small part of what the Unitarian minister Edward Sears, in the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” called “two thousand years of wrong.”

The line comes from the third verse of that carol, which is sometimes skipped during performances and even left out of some hymnals, but not ours. It goes like this:

  • Yet with the woes of sin and strife
  • The world has suffered long;
  • Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
  • Two thousand years of wrong;
  • And man, at war with man, hears not
  • The love-song which they bring;
  • O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
  • And hear the angels sing.[3]

It’s hard to recite these lines without breaking into song, particularly since this is one of my favorite carols. We would say “people” instead of “man,” to be inclusive, in this case sadly. The story is that Sears wrote this song – it wasn’t meant for Christmas alone, let alone sales-floor muzak – after the Mexican – American War – that is, the US invasion of Mexico and seizure of its northern half, 1846-1848. After all the wars that came after, one can find it can be hard to remember how greatly that conflict shocked the conscience of the nation, or at least some parts of the nation. Those most opposed to it including some of the most prominent and influential people of the time, from Frederick Douglass to John Quincy Adams to the young Abraham Lincoln[4]. The conflict gave rise, among other things, to Henry David Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience.” Bitterly opposed to slavery and the slave power, and to an aggressive war waged in no small measure to expand it, Thoreau argued that none of us should allow the laws or those who created and enforced them to overwhelm our consciences or make us complicit in wrongs. Resisting unjust and immortal laws, governments and economic entities could, and often does, rise to the level of a civic – that is, civil – and moral duty. We have seen it from Thoreau’s and Douglass’s days all the way to our own.

Against such powers as sin, strife, war, noise, wrong, a love-song, an angel-strain, an essay, and other forms of nonviolent resistance may seem like they have little chance. In the mysterious providence of God, however, these acts of love and justice work like water over rock: gradually, relentlessly, wearing it down, smoothing its edges, and in time washing it away. By themselves, the song of the angels would not be enough. They need, and he needs, our hands and hearts, our minds and wills, to right the wrongs and redeem the times. It is in addition to, and as part of, Jesus’s instructions to his followers to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “baptize in my name,” and “bear witness to all that you have seen,” that we continue to struggle like this against the rolling and roiling of “two thousand years of wrong.”

Living that way can be costly, however. Any work, any struggle has its price, and we must be renewed for it, especially if we cannot be renewed in it, in order for the struggle, the work to continue. Once they figured out that no, Jesus wasn’t coming back any time soon, they realized that they would have to tell his story and teach that hope to future generations. Christians figured out, also, that they would have to create ways to nourish the spirit and heal the hurts of those who did the work of Christ. They would have to create places and times for renewal as well as action. From this need come many of our traditions of prayer, worship, fellowship, formation, welcome, and hospitality – and, hence, the parish church, their natural home. As circumstances dictate and as times change, we must renew each of these, and thereby renew the church that is their home. As we do so, we find new ways to enable our worship and prayer, fellowship and formation, hospitality and welcome to sustain us as a community of disciples, not merely consumers of spiritual resources. Part of our work as those who wait for Christ to return by living as best we can by his light and grace, we listen in the quiet for how he would have us gather again safely and sustainably, and to be renewed, to do the work he has given us to do.

You see, in a way we are more like those disciples on that first Ascension Day than we have been in any other year, as the church. Something we’d had for a long time, and in many ways loved, has been taken from us. It’s not just the sense of normalcy and public health that we’ve lost, the ability to go safely about our world, to work, to play, to shop, to dine, even to gather with family and friends. That, along with many jobs and businesses and, worst of all, lives, the virus has indeed taken away. We’re not sure when we’ll get these things back – though those we’ve lost we can hope now only to see in the life that is to come – or in what way. The virus and our necessary responses to it have also taken much of what we knew as church, the wonderful comfort of being able to gather together to worship, sing, talk, play, learn, even take communion and study scripture together in the same place, right next to each other, secure in the air we breathe and the comfort of one another’s company. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I am in the midst of them.” Yet where are you, Jesus, when we cannot gather like that?

It’s natural to ask that. I do. I look up to the sky like the disciples did at Jesus ascending, eventually out of their sight, or look around at what’s missing, drive by the empty church building and look at it from the parking lot or the churchyard, wondering how everyone’s doing whom I had just gotten used to seeing there some two months ago. As I did so this week, while preparing this sermon, I couldn’t shake a voice in my head speaking to me just like the one the disciples heard, saying “Why do you stand here looking up, waiting for what you had and want back to come back just as it was? It’ll come back but be different than it was, and your standing here waiting for it won’t make it happen.” I’d like to think I also heard Jesus’s words, “Stay where you are until you have been clothed with power from on high,” but what actually came was a feeling of peace, a sense that we’re going to be okay, get through this together, and in quiet confidence find the ways to gather as church again and do God’s work, and share God’s love, in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

The church, and by this I mean the church at large, in all its denominations and forms and systems, will fail if it approaches this crisis in its life by trying to rush back as quickly as it can to make things just like they were before. It will succeed if it opens itself with a whole heart to what we have found sustains us in quarantine and times of distancing, and learn to see with clearer eyes and in a new light the richness in our traditions and resources, and in light of the world’s new needs. Let us not mourn for what we have lost but celebrate what we have found, and what has found us, in the midst of a world that a virus has perhaps only begun to change.

To that end, I would ask each of you to reflect on what experiences in worship, prayer, fellowship, and formation have been most nourishing to you in your journey in faith, and especially over the last two months as we’ve been worshipping online like this. I hope that my voice, and that of my wife as our scripture reader, have been conduits for God’s grace and mercy, love and joy. Please write to me with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, and concerns – and, always, with such request for counsel and prayer as you might need. I pray each day that you are all well, healthy, and at peace.

Most importantly, look up to the skies as did the disciples on that first Ascension Day, but do not stop there. Await the power of the Spirit, and expect it. Gather as best you may online as long as needs be, and in person when we can, to share that Spirit’s gifts and know God’s love in new and different ways. Be at peace today, and may God’s blessings be with you all.

A Statement of Faith, A Song of God’s Love   (1 John 4:7-11)

Beloved, let us love one another, *
for love is of God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, *
for God is Love.
In this the love of God was revealed among us, *
that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us *
and sent his Son that sins might be forgiven.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, *
we ought also to love one another.
For if we love one another, God abides in us, *
and God’s love will be perfected in us.

A Collect for the Ascension
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen

A Collect for the 7th Sunday of Easter
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

A Prayer for the New Day
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen

A Prayer after St. Alphonsus
O Jesus, you are present to us in the blessed sacrament. We love you above all things, and desire to receive you into our souls. Since we cannot at this time share your sacrament, let your spirit dwell within our hearts. Let us welcome you as one already with us, making us one body and one spirit, never to be parted from you. Amen.

Hymn: Alleluia! Sing to Jesus   W.C. Dix   Hymnal 1982 #460

Alleluia! sing to Jesus!
his the scepter, his the throne;
Alleluia! his the triumph,
his the victory alone;

Hark! the songs of peaceful Zion
thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus out of every nation
hath redeemed us by his blood.

Alleluia! not as orphans
are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! he is near us,
faith believes, nor questions how:

though the cloud from sight received him,
when the forty days were o’er,
shall our hearts forget his promise,
‘I am with you evermore’?

Alleluia! bread of Heaven,
Thou on earth our food, our stay!
Alleluia! here the sinful
flee to thee from day to day:

Intercessor, friend of sinners,
earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
where the songs of all the sinless
sweep across the crystal sea.

Alleluia! King eternal,
thee the Lord of lords we own:
Alleluia! born of Mary,
earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne:

thou within the veil hast entered,
robed in flesh, our great High Priest:
thou on earth both Priest and Victim
in the eucharistic feast.

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!
his the scepter, his the throne;
Alleluia! His the triumph,
his the victory alone;

Hark! The songs of holy Zion
Thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus out of every nation
hath redeemed us by his blood.

Blessing
May the Lord God bless you and keep you, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you, bless your comings and your goings, and guide your feet into the way of peace. Amen.

Hymn: Spirit of the Living God   Daniel Iverson, alt.

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.

About Episcopal Worship and this Easter Service

The Sixth Sunday of Easter is also known as Ascension Sunday, and comes just after the Feast of the Ascension, and one week before the Day of Pentecost, or Whitsunday. The texts and hymns for these days are filled with imagery of triumph, power, and hope, that all things may be made new in Christ, and thereby made whole. They also charge God’s people not simply to look up to heaven, or down into an empty tomb, with confusion, longing, and a sense of waiting. Instead, we are to go forth and let the world know what we have seen, to bear witness to Christ’s love and mercy, his sense of justice, and the salvation he has made available for all.

All Easter worship is designed to have the congregation gather for prayer, lessons, the Eucharist, and song. In times of contagion and quarantine, the community may not gather or share the Eucharist. We have adapted this service to the conditions of the time, celebrating Morning Prayer in the Presence of the Reserved Sacrament, honoring God with our daily office prayers, thanksgivings, lessons, canticles, and hymns.

This booklet is designed for you to use on your own, in addition to being a guide to worship online. The readings, prayers, and liturgies are taken or adapted from those in The Book of Common Prayer, The Book of Occasional Services, Enriching Our Worship 1, and the hymnals. You will find links to these resources below.

Resources (available for free online)

Book of Common Prayer, www.bcponline.org

Enriching Our Worship 1, https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/enriching-our-worship-1/enrichingourworship1.pdf

Enriching Our Worship 2, https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/enriching-our-worship-2/enrichingourworship2.pdf

These resources contain the prayers and worship services used in The Episcopal Church and by Episcopalians in their daily devotions.

The Revised Common Lectionary and Daily Office, https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

This source shows the readings assigned for use in Sunday worship and for daily office use for each day of the year, with links to online biblical texts.

Hymnal 1982: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/EH1982

Hymnal 1940: https://hymnary.org/hymnal/HPEC1940

 

The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org

Episcopal News Service: www.episcopalnewsservice.org

The Episcopal Diocese of Washington: www.edow.org

St. Mark’s, Fairland: www.stmarks-silverspring.org

 

A Prayer in Times of Sickness and Contagion

Heavenly Father, giver of life and health, source of all wisdom and peace: Comfort and relieve your servants who suffer from sickness or fear, give your power of healing to those who minister to their needs, and let your grace be with all those who work to protect us from contagion and disease. May we be strengthened against any weakness, sickness, fear, and doubt, and place our confidence in your loving care through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; Romans 6:9-11

[2] Sermon copyright © Christopher Wilkins. All rights reserved. Distribution is permitted so long as authorship is acknowledged.

[3] See Hymnal 1982, #89. Sears wrote five verses; Hymnal 1982 prints only vv.1-3 and 5. Hymnal 1940 #19 gives all five, marking v.3, above, as optional. Many hymnals from the United Methodist and Lutheran traditions omit v.3.

[4] As noted in Digital History, “…a small but highly visible group of intellectuals, clergymen, pacifists, abolitionists, and Whig and Democratic politicians denounced the war as brutal aggression against a “poor, feeble, distracted country” (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3266). These included Abraham Lincoln, then a first-term Congressman from Illinois, who called it “calling it immoral, proslavery, and a threat to the nation’s republican [that is, democratic and anti-tyrannical] values” (ibid.).