Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
I woke up the other morning from a pretty vivid dream, the kind that lingers for a while. I was walking through a garden wearing a black clergy dress, and picking the flowers that were blooming there. It was this time of year in my dream…there were peonies, hydrangea, white blossoms from shrubs as filler between the bigger flowers. I was filling two vases full of the fragrant blooms from this dream garden.
It was only after I woke up that I became aware that the images in my mind were just as much memory as dream. Gathering flowers from my yard was my Sunday morning routine during the weeks after Easter 2020, when we were all worshiping at home. Our buildings had been closed during COVID; we still thought the time of the pandemic shut-down would be measured in weeks. Each week I would fill two small glass vases from whatever cuttings my garden had to offer up. Granted, my dreamscape garden was a lot better maintained than my overgrown yard. But there was always something to be found to fill the two small glass vases that would rest on makeshift home altar set up on the cedar chest in my guest room, a calming and fragrant background while I would “Zoom” our Sunday worship and Thursday Compline.
I never realized there were so many things growing in my yard, to be honest. I remember being stunned and a little embarrassed that I had not been paying attention to all that was right around me: the beauty of spiderwort, the variegated leaves of ginger or the way a few big magnolia blossoms brought inside in a bowl could open fully and scent the whole house.
I celebrated the first anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood during those late Eastertide days of 2020. I wrote a blog entry during that time called, “Priesting in Pandemic” which I looked up and read again this week, after I had that dream. In it, I talked about the joys that I was discovering not only in my yard, but in our virtual worship. I reflected on the way that online teaching and learning in my secular life had prepared me for something I didn’t realize that I would be doing in my church life. In that blog post, I said, “Priesting in pandemic reminds me that relationships…with each other, and with God…are what everything else is about. That’s not new information, but it’s uncluttered for me now.”
I know with my logical brain that during that time of isolation there was also so much anxiety: the unknown risks of health impacts, personal, family and global…the uncertainty of work…challenges of education…mental health impacts we’re still not talking about seriously as we should. I only half-jokingly talk about those many months for me as my “workdemic” where my commute was between the laptops for three different positions all of which demanded the “pandemic pivot” from in person teaching, worship and formation into completely virtual spaces. That time of pandemic shut-down sometimes feels like a dream now, but all of that was very real.
Another very real thing for many of us here during the shut down was a life of prayer and care, both in virtual community and privately. I read the verse we hear in today’s Epistle over and over again, “cast all your anxiety upon God who cares for you.” There was, for good reason, a lot of anxiety. And in it, we prayed for and with each other. I still have cards, notes and check-in emails. We prayed for and took care of each other, even when we couldn’t see one other. While weeks stretched on before vaccines and dropping transmission rates, there was nothing to have but faith in the midst of fear.
Every Sunday morning as I refreshed my flowers, I would remember that even if my world was as small as my yard for now, it was virtually expansive. Relationships still mattered. We had to believe in what we could not see, touch or experience with our senses in the way we’d grown used to doing. And somehow, that weekly ritual of flower picking gave me the touch-point that I needed to tangibly remind me of God’s presence and care in all of this. Even when I thought I wouldn’t find anything, those vases would come inside to my home altar filled with once-hidden beauty.
In today’s Gospel lesson we find ourselves standing with the disciples towards the end of John’s Gospel’s account of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, where he had been preparing his followers for his betrayal, crucifixion, death, resurrection and as we celebrate today, his ascension. I know we are only reading a portion of the Gospel in today’s lectionary but let me give you this spoiler alert: the disciples were not immediately calm in the face of this news they were receiving. They were, in fact, quite anxious about what Jesus was saying. They were trying to wrap their minds around it, to figure out the timeline, to get some concrete and tactile reassurance. It’s easy to stand in solidarity with them. We’re very familiar with the grief, pain, injustice, confusion and anxiety of the world in which we live. With good reason, we often pray during our intercessions for ourselves and others to escape from it.
But Jesus’ intercession, in unity with the Father, gives us more than escape from the changes and chances of this world. Jesus prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
Jesus’ prayer for us was and is that through the love of God in Jesus Christ, we will be protected by being one with each other.
The prayer Jesus offers for his followers…then and now… isn’t our escape or removal from this world, nor is it our “rising above” or outshining one another. It isn’t about special privileges or even earning our way to advantage. Jesus’ prayer for us is that we may be one, even as Jesus and the Father are one.
Experiencing the at-one-ness of being the Body of Christ means that we share one another’s joys as well as grief; that when one of us is hurt we all wrap around them with healing, and when one is healed, we all experience joy and give thanks. This prayer Jesus offers is the exact opposite of opportunistic consumerism and rugged individualism that demands we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and ignore the needs of our neighbors. It reminds us of the words that reformers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Emma Lazarus have repeated: none of us are free until all of us are free. In Jesus’ prayer for us, we get a glimpse of God’s vision for us. And what we see is that the presence of God is made known to us through one another.
Through that dream, my mind became uncluttered again. I was taken back to a singular moment: those walks in my yard, collecting the hidden gifts of creation from a loving Creator who formed the world and called it “good.” In those uncluttered moments, it was clear to me that I wasn’t in isolation all by myself; I was a part of a larger community who worshiped together, prayed together, and took care of each other. And as we lived faithfully into being one, we felt protected through Christ who made us one. I still feel it, and I hope that you do as well. It is the gift of Christ’s Ascension, the gift of Jesus’ prayer for all of his followers of that generation and all the generations to come. Sometimes, we get too caught up in doing all the things to stop and feel the presence of that gift. But like the blooms and leaves that would appear week after week when I stopped to notice, slowing down to welcome God’s presence reveals the gifts that are already present with us in the faces of our friends, neighbors and even holy strangers.
Jesus’ invitation to us remains: be present. So, as we come to this table where we are made one body and one holy people we remember not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also Christ’s Ascension, the prayer of at-one-ness with each other and the reminder that Jesus Christ is always being revealed in more ways than we can see when we’re moving quickly through our lives. So, in this time where we remember Christ’s Ascension I invite you to pause and pray and allow your eyes to be opened to the wonders revealed in each other, in this community, and in the hidden gifts which continue to be revealed as we walk, and pray and love one another.
Risen and ascended Christ, you surround us with witnesses and send us your Holy Spirit who opens our minds to understand your teaching. Bless us with such grace that our lives may become a blessing for the world now, and in the age to come. Amen.
Vases with home altar flowers, May 2020