By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector
Today is a pivot point on many of our calendars. It’s Memorial Day weekend, the gateway to summer. We’ve just celebrated baptisms and confirmations. Graduations and the end of school have either happened or soon will. Summer activities and vacations await us.
We’re at a pivot point in church seasons, too. After six weeks, the Easter season is drawing to a close. We’ve celebrated not only Jesus’s resurrection, but also his reappearances among the disciples: in the locked room where they hid in fear after his crucifixion; and on the road to Emmaus where he walked alongside them; and at supper as he took, blessed, and broke bread with them. In the wake of his resurrection and those reappearances, we’ve also reexamined his assertion to the disciples that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and his assurance to them that he will never leave them orphaned.
Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t leave them. Forty days after the resurrection – on our calendar, this past Thursday, known as Ascension Day – Jesus gathers the disciples on the Mount of Olives and is lifted up before their very eyes and disappears in a cloud. Gone. Vanished. But before he goes, he gives them very precise directions: go back to Jerusalem, and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When it comes, he tells them, they will receive its power. And then, his final instruction: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It’s a pivot point in the lives of the disciples. Until that moment when Jesus ascends, he has been their guide, their leader, and their teacher. They have been his companions, his followers, his students. Now they are his apostles, sent forth to spread the message of Jesus, to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”
It can be a pivot point in our lives as well. Today, the Easter stories draw to a close. Like the ascended Jesus, the symbols of resurrection – the Easter hangings and the Paschal candle and the Alleluias that adorn the sanctuary – will soon be out of sight. And, as it is for the apostles, it can be our opportunity for us to take what we have seen and heard past three months and be Jesus’s witnesses. It can be our opportunity to pivot from focusing on what we know about Jesus to who we are because of Jesus.
How do we do that? For us as Episcopalians, I can’t think of a better starting point than our baptismal covenant. It includes five promises that we make, as we did last Sunday, at every baptism and confirmation. Here they are:
First, that we will continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. This goes to the heart of the pivot that we can make today. We’ve heard the stories. Now it’s our turn to tell them and to live them. Fellowship means that we do that together, just as we break bread together in the service of holy communion. It feeds our spirits as well as our bodies, and it is central to remembering who we are called to be. Prayers, whether said alone or with others, guide us on the journey. So come to church, take communion, and say your prayers.
Second, that we will persevere in resisting evil, and whenever, you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. This promise recognizes that we all sin. What’s important is what we do about it. The word “persevere” recognizes that it’s hard, but we keep trying. It’s not an excuse to say “everyone else is doing it” or “me first.” We keep trying. And when (not if) we do sin, we face up to it: we accept that we’ve done something wrong, we say we’re sorry, and we ask forgiveness from the person we’ve hurt and from God. There is nothing more powerful than a heartfelt “I’m sorry.” It soothes the person we’ve wronged, and it goes a long way to heal whatever is in us that caused us to mess up in the first place.
Third, that we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and the good news of the gospels basically boils down to this: no one who is beyond the love of God. There is not a single person who approached Jesus during his life on earth whom he turned away, whether they were regarded as outcasts, like lepers and demoniacs, or were of another religion, like Gentiles and Samaritans, or were notorious sinners like the woman accused of adultery or tax collectors or the bandits who hung on the crosses on either side of his. We get to tell that story. Even better – and infinitely harder – we get to live it. No one is beyond the love of God.
Fourth, that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. All persons. It’s easy, or at least easier, to seek and serve Christ in the people we love and the people who are like us. But Jesus himself said “Love your enemies,” and “all persons” is all-encompassing and unequivocal. Perhaps a clue to how to do this lies in the work “seek.” To seek something requires some effort. We have to look for something, maybe even ask for help from someone. Prayers help. Start small, maybe with a family member or coworker who drives you crazy. Or someone you don’t know, like someone you read about in the newspaper. But remember the kicker: all persons means all persons.
Fifth, that we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. The definition of strive is to “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something,” and there’s that word “all” again. Faithful Episcopalians have various ideas about how to achieve justice and peace. Just ponder our different opinions with respect to affirmative action, climate change, gun control, health care and immigration reform. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. It means that we have to work together, to listen to one another, and, yes, to respect the dignity of every human being.
There we have them: five ways in which each and every one of us – on more than one occasion – has promised, with God’s help, to be Jesus’s witnesses. So take this pivot point as the opportunity that we have already, in our baptismal covenant, declared we want to take. An opportunity to pivot from merely saying what we believe to grappling with what it means to live it. An opportunity to pivot from being spectators to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to being witnesses to what that life, death, and resurrection mean in our lives today. An opportunity to pivot from hearing the good news to being the good news.