Reading(s): Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. This sermon was given by Sally at All Saints Church, North Baddesley.
It certainly is great to be back inside our church buildings again and seeing people in the flesh so to speak - for myself it is much better than staring at myself on a computer screen! Although things are obviously not exactly the same as they used to be, due to Covid restrictions. However, hopefully if infections do fall it will not be long until these restrictions can all be lifted, unless of course a new variant hits us. At the moment we are in a sort of in-between time waiting for the day when masks, social distancing etc will hopefully become things of the past. We are waiting and praying that as the months go by the dangers of this frightening pandemic will have also past to such a degree that life will become more like it used to be before this terrible virus hit the world.
Today the Sunday after Accession day, which was Thursday, is also an in-between time, although we know that for sure we will be celebrating Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit next Sunday. It is a space of holy waiting as it was for Jesus’s disciples. Of course for them it had been a bit of a roller coaster with regard to their emotions, six weeks ago they had witnessed Jesus’s silence when the lies and accusations were made against him. They knew of his cruel beating and his brutal death on that shameful cross, and we cannot begin to imagine how devastated they must have felt. Then there were his resurrection appearances, at first they were uncertain it was Jesus and then after uncertainty came joy. But now when they thought their Lord and master was going to be around for a bit longer he disappears in front of their eyes - leaving them to wait.
I wonder how they felt about that, how indeed do we feel about waiting? In the past year we have had to wait quite a lot, we have perhaps waited on the phone to get through to a medical centre, waited in a queue to go into a shop and some of you probably waited in a line to receive your vaccine. Sometimes waiting can be a pleasure especially if there is something worth waiting for, whilst at other times it is so frustrating! In this mornings reading from Luke’s book of Acts, the disciples are in Jerusalem waiting, after Jesus’s ascension, but they are not idle. Peter is moved to replace Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. We hear that after much prayer and the drawing of lots Matthias is chosen. So the number of the twelve is restored, and they keep vigil and wait as instructed.
Thankfully we do not draw lots when choosing new Vicars, but there is of course much prayer. Over the last 30 years I have seen a few incumbents of this benefice come and go. The waiting time in between a new vicar leaving and another one arriving is known as an interregnum and it can be a challenging time for all concerned, especially when there is much work to be taken on that was previously done by the incumbent. Of course most parishes’s expectations of who they would like as their new vicar can far out weigh anything that is humanly possible, but it is an interesting exercise to see what are considered as priorities when selecting a new Vicar.
The criteria for choosing the person to replace Judas was this, he had to be one of the men who had been with them the whole time Jesus was living amongst that group, from John’s baptism to the time of his ascension. Also in the words from the reading “one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection”. So that apparently narrowed it down to two men. Of course we know there were women who followed Jesus and I am sure at least one would have fitted this criteria, but they are not mentioned, it is hoped that this sort of discrimination would not happen today!
We know hardly anything about Matthias compared to the other disciples, but we do know at times there was friction between the disciples and comments made about who was the greatest and probably other such petty issues that made ministry difficult at times. Parishes and benefices are not always free from friction and criticism either, one of the targets is often the Vicar. Many people forget that unlike years ago today many vicars have multiple parishes to look after. Long gone are the days when one village had a church and a vicar and may be even a curate and they knew most of the population if not all! With less ordained ministers the work load has become intolerable for some clerics, trying to keep parishes and chaplaincies working smoothly plus the demand on their private lives, because don’t forget they are on call 24/7 if there is an emergency, which they fully accept as part of their calling as the cure of souls. But now we hear more than ever of clergy having health issues because of sheer exhaustion as so much is demanded of them. The calling of Matthias reminds us that we are all chosen, the lot falls to each of us, we all have a ministry in some form in the life of a church, not always ordained but a ministry of some sort, because everything that is done within or outside our churches is to the glory of God.
Let me tell you a little story:
The vicar in a certain parish developed a rather strange habit. Regardless of what he was doing, at 5pm if he was at home, he would rush out of the room he was in and go into his study for five minutes and then return. After a bit the parishioners started to notice and wondered what this was all about. So they collared the church warden to ask her to tackle the vicar about this.
So the churchwarden made an appointment to see the vicar. She began to explain: “Vicar, people in the parish have been talking about this strange habit of yours. At 5pm every evening, whenever you are home, regardless of what is going on, you rush off to the study. Why?"
The vicar looked at his watch and said " Well it’s almost 5pm, why don’t you come with me”. So they go up to his study and look out of the window. Now the study overlooked a railway line and as they stood looking out of the window the 5pm train to Leeds rushed through. The churchwarden was puzzled and looked at the vicar and said “What’s so special about that?”.
“Well,” the vicar replied “I like to look at the train, because it is the only thing in my parish that moves without my having to push it!"
I am pleased that this particular Vicar was able to convey his feelings to his churchwarden with such a powerful analogy.
We are in the in-between time part of the 10 days before the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are in an in-between time as we wait in hope for even more Covid restrictions to be lifted. Therefore what are we going to be doing with that time?
After the ascension, the disciples had to carry on their ministry without Jesus’s presence with them and we often forget that important fact, they were going to have more responsibility and challenging times ahead of them and suffer for their faith. As the disciples looked upwards and stood gazing into the sky, as Christ ascended into heaven, they should have perhaps looked downwards and seen Jesus’s footprints to remind them of everything he said and did, for it really happened, and death could not contain him.
Perhaps we also need to question whether our own faith journey is sometimes marked by looking upwards to the heavens - waiting for something to happen, confused by change, looking for a perfect world and perhaps yearning for how things used to be. Or whether our journey calls us to look across the face of the earth as we seek Jesus’s footprints, measure our own steps against them, embrace transformation and empowerment, and decide where those footprints might be leading us. Ascension-tide is not a call to look upwards, it is a call to trust that Christ’s promise is down - and in - and around - and among us - its a call to action and not just to sit around and wait for someone else to do something or criticise those who presently are trying their best to further Gods Kingdom on earth. So I am going to close with a prayer to help us as we wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to inspire us and perhaps discover what God is calling us to do.
Gracious God, you call us on a journey to grow in grace and holiness. As we travel on that journey give us an assurance of your loving presence that filled with your Spirit, we may work with you, and our fellow pilgrims, in the transformation of our churches and our communities so that they become signs of your kingdom of justice and joy. Amen