Sermon for May 17, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Psalm 47 and John 17:6-19


 Praise and Prayer


We are a people of story. Our lives tell the story of those who have gone before us, and the seeds of story yet to be told. I recently met with a woman who asked me to tell her the story of our faith. What is the Christian story? Is it true? How do you know? What difference does it make? I took a deep breath. Where do we begin to tell someone who has not heard it before, all that took place a very long time ago, in a small corner of the middle eastern world, a story that has shaken and shaped every generation over time, even to our own.

         In this Easter season, the story we share with her begins in the last chapter of the first book. Like the Star Wars movie series of generations ago, we don’t have to tell the story in the order in which it occurred for it to make sense. Since that day in April when we gathered in the darkness of a pre-dawn morning to discover an empty tomb, we have listened to stories about a man named Jesus. We know that he was born, lived and died, a fact verified by writers outside the stories of our Bible. In these days since Easter, we joined all those who have gone before us who do not yet recognize Jesus standing there in the cemetery with Mary Magdalene, nor made sense of the angels observed keeping watch over empty grave clothes. If you’ve been away for a while, much has happened. Let me catch you up on the story.

Jesus appeared twice to his disciples behind locked doors, the second time showing the wounds in his hands and sides to Thomas, the doubter, who said he needed evidence to believe. Jesus breaks bread with Cleopas and walks with two other followers at Emmaus, and then again with the disciples in Jerusalem.

         Jesus knew that we are a people of story. He hung around for a few days after his death before ascending to his Father, in order to remind the people who loved him of these stories, of all they had heard and seen in him. He reminded them of what they had experienced and invited them to remember the healings of a blind man and a bleeding woman, the healing of a Centurion’s daughter and a leper. He recalled the feeding of the 5,000 and the welcome of outcasts, and the forgiveness of a woman sentenced to death for adultery. He opened their understanding of the parables and revealed the meaning of all that had taken place. And then Jesus passed the baton to them. “Now you go”, he said. “Bear witness with your life to all you have seen and heard and experienced in me. Share the good news of God’s love for all people, God’s grace, mercy and peace for the entire world in every corner of the world for all of time.”

         We know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of story. Someone, somewhere, sometime passed the baton of faith to us, and like the first disciples of Jesus, the first followers of what came to be called The Way, we carry it forward to those who come after us. Like Jesus’ untimely death, we do not always know at first when the baton has passed or what we are supposed to do with it, or what will become of us for carrying it.

         When I was a young adult, my beloved Grandma Elvie died. She was the one whose unconditional love made me feel as if I could do anything. She wasn’t educated, finishing the eighth grade before she left school to take care of younger siblings and her mama, sick with woman troubles as they called it in those days. Three days after Grandma Elvie died, she came to me in the living room of my home where I lived with my husband and two young sons 300 miles from where she had been buried. I told her that I wanted to go with her, inconsolable as I was then with grief. She at first told me that it was not yet my time. Then she asked me to hold out my hands and into them she placed a gift. Though I cannot tell you to this day its shape or form, it was pure love bathed in light. “Teach only love,” she said. “For that is what you are. Teach only love.” She stayed with me but a few minutes more, and then stepped into a column of light in the center of the room, and was gone.

         Were it not for the fact that so many of you have experienced such a moment of absolute certainly about something that makes no more sense than this, I would not tell you of it even now. But I do know this. It changed my life. Within a year I had applied to Yale Divinity School, shifting from the worthy task of teaching sixth graders American history to well, this life that calls us to love God and neighbor as self that we share. Grandma Elvie passed the baton of unconditional love to me, and asked me to make loving a way of life.

         Even as Jesus passed God stories to the disciples, and in time, on to us, he also passed the disciples themselves to God. In today’s most tender conclusion to the post-resurrection experiences, Jesus passed the disciples to God and commended them to God’s care through prayer. Jesus had loved them, and taught them and cared for him, and now he died. He could not bear leaving them vulnerable and unprotected, and so he prayed this tender and passionate prayer for them before ascending to heaven.

         “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…. I speak these things so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

         As Jesus passed the stories of God with us to all who followed him, now Christ passes the disciples to God, praying protection for them, that they might know the joy of this greatest story ever told, and equipping them to share it to those in need of it. As Jesus passed stories forward to his disciples and to those who followed, and to those who followed them, on down even to us, so too Jesus passes us up to God, praying for our protection and for our joy as we live out the story that we have received.

         Who passed this story of faith to you? How have you been changed by what you have received? What does God intend for you to do with your story next? These questions of faith have surely shaped our past, as they continue to shape the unfolding of our life still before us. We are all people of story, the story of God made known to us and to the world through Christ.

Every morning stories of a bad news world wait for us on the doorstep: A young man sentenced to die for his senseless violence against innocent people; objects hurled at passing trains, perhaps the prank of school boys, bored and looking for fun, the deadly derailment still under investigation; a Wall Street Journal report on Christians in Iraq once numbering 1.5 million who now have dwindled by three-fourths to less than 300,000. In the direst of circumstances, they have fled or been killed by sectarian violence. We live in a world shaped by a past century of world wars and genocide, racial and ethnic hatred and incomprehensible inhumanity to humankind. We sometimes shake our heads at the rampant violence from Boston to Baghdad, as if our puny efforts matter little.

As Christians, we affirm the story that God sent Christ into the world to show us a more excellent way. We share the Good News story that there is a God who made us for good, who teaches us compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and joy. Ours is a faith that honors the sanctity of life and the preciousness of every living thing. We trust this God, this power within and without who reveals to us a path to peace when there appears to be no peace. At yesterday’s UNH commencement address, Sergeant Ryan Pitts said, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to move forward in the face of it.” We search for meaningful ways to courageously and persistently live out this story of our faith as if the future of the world depends on it. It does.

On this Ascension Sunday, we listen for how God speaks Good News into a bad news world. We ask ourselves what this story is calling us to do now. We pray for God to equip us to tell the story of God’s love for humankind through our lives. There is no greater purpose. There is no more urgent time than this.

Recall this morning the legacy of faith passed to you by this Jesus and perhaps by those whom Christ loved: by your parents, by your priests and your pastors or your Sunday school teachers from a lifetime ago, the sacrifices made across centuries of faith that long before Jesus lived, died and rose, brought a young widow named Ruth to say to her mother-in-law Orpah, “Where you go, I will go, where you dwell, I will dwell, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

 We each in turn have such a story to tell. Let me share one of them with you now. We remember today the story of a young boy whose father decided to take up playing the organ, only to discover that the greater talent for music in the family belonged not with him but with his son. Or perhaps there wasn’t enough money for both to learn to play, and so he passed the baton early to our beloved Maestro Wendell. And so on this Sunday, we remember John Shepard Purrington and Virginia Russell Purrington, in whose memory the last of the non-speaking organ pipes have been installed in our sanctuary along with the rest of the pipes, made possible through generous gifts from a number of you.

         As Christ has gifted each of us, so Christ gifted our music Director with the capacity to share God’s Good News through the ministry of music. We give God thanks today for his twenty years of faithful musical storytelling here at First Parish Church. Thankfully it is not yet time for Wendell to hand the baton to one who will someday follow. Until that day, we praise God for all that we have received and receive still, a portion of the gospel joy he has been given that reveals the story of his faith and our own.

Soon we will share a moment of gratitude for Wendell’s twenty years of ministry among us, as will be introduced by fellow musician and colleague Gina Connolly. We pray today for God to reveal to us the next chapter in our story of faith, and how we might yet share it. We hope that the lives of those who hear it will be utterly transformed as we were when first we received it.

May the story of God’s Good News made known through God’s Word and through the music to come, remind each of us of our own legacy of faith. This day, give thanks to God and to Christ the Good Shepherd for the story of abundant and joyful life entrusted to us, that we might share God’s transforming grace with generations yet to come. In all things, to God be the glory. Amen