The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Bishops and priests go to a special school called seminary. Technically, it’s graduate school, but seminary is very different from your normal graduate school. Like graduate school, seminarians are evaluated based on their academics. But unique to seminary, seminarians are also evaluated on a number of intangible factors. Professors evaluate seminarians on things like – how often you go to chapel, what organizations you’re involved in, how well you get along with other students. Those evaluations are then sent to your bishop. Let’s just say this makes for a very anxious environment.
One day at seminary, our church history professor was giving a lecture on the recent past of the Episcopal Church and our future. Without sparing any of the gory details, our professor described the decline of the Church since the 1960s. You’ve probably seen the graph of church membership. The one that looks like this. And you’ve heard the recent polls and news articles this week about how fewer people are affiliating themselves with denominations and religions. So, imagine yourself in that seminary classroom. You’ve invested half a decade to get this point, you’re probably drowning in student loans to pay for seminary, you’re terrified of every professor, and then someone is telling you that there may not be enough churches in ten years for every priest to find a job.
The anxiety level that was already here, just went to here. Every one of those seminarians had that deer in the headlights look. That, “what have I done with my life?” look. Until finally, one brave seminarian raised her hand. She asked, “is there any hope for the Episcopal Church?” Is there any hope for the Episcopal Church?
The professor looked back. Almost with this puzzlement on his face. Like the seminarian just didn’t get it. The professor looked at her said, “there’s always hope. Because the Lord Jesus is the head of the church.” Because the Lord Jesus is the head of the church.
See, at every generation in the church’s history, there has been anxiety, there has been a crisis. This is nothing new to us. Look at the passage from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. The disciples are having a crisis. They are anxious. This was all because the apostles had a spot to fill. They had to fill the spot left by Judas the betrayer. This may seem odd to us, I mean, who cares whether there are eleven or twelve or thirteen apostles? But for them, it’s a big deal. Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people. And these twelve apostles are symbolic of the reworking, the recreation of God’s chosen people. So they had to have twelve. Without twelve, something is missing.
This story takes place right after the Ascension of Jesus but before Pentecost. Remember your church calendars. Ascension Day is forty days after Easter, and Pentecost is ten days later, fifty days after Easter. So this story takes place less than two months after Easter. Less than two months after Easter, the Church is already freaking out. We already have our first crisis. Jesus has been gone for less than a week, and they’re already anxious.
Now, whenever there’s a crisis, that’s when the Holy Spirit shows up. That’s what happens in today’s story. Nominations are taken, lots are cast, and Matthias is chosen to be the twelfth apostle. Crisis resolved. From the Church’s perspective, missing an apostle could have been symbolic of their failed leadership. But from God’s perspective, this crisis was an opportunity to make new leaders. That’s always how it works. The crisis presents itself to the Church, we panic and freak out, but God uses it as an opportunity to create something new.
For us, right now, it seems that the crisis in the Church is one of membership and money. We start to panic and freak out, we ask, “will there an Episcopal Church for my kids? Why aren’t there any young people in church? Why is the Church dying?” But we all need to take a deep breath, and remember that crises are always happening in the Church. And that no matter what happens, Jesus is still Lord and head of the Church. And while we panic, God looks for a solution.
So let’s get back to the Episcopal Church. Our major crisis isn’t about sexuality. It’s actually not about money or membership or theology. The crisis right now is about sentimentality. The biggest issue in the Episcopal Church, right now, is that we want to return to some idyllic past. The crisis right now, is that we want something that just isn’t going to happen. One of my priest friends says that if the 1950s ever come back, the Episcopal Church will be ready. The crisis is that the Episcopal Church of 2015 can no longer act like the Episcopal Church of 1955.
That’s our crisis. And it was the same for the apostles. The twelve apostles that were around with Jesus can’t be the same twelve anymore, because Judas had betrayed them. They could have sat around, moping, wondering why Judas did what he did. They could have felt sorry for themselves. But they didn’t, because God used the crisis as an opportunity. The Church trusted God and moved forward.
Now we get down to the level of Holy Comforter. And I want to say this: crisis is not always a bad thing. Crisis in the church can be a good thing, because it’s an opportunity to create something new. So what’s the crisis at Holy Comforter? New people. Growth. ExxonMobil. The luxury apartments they are building across the street. The forty-acres of office, residential, and retail space going in across the street from HEB. The crisis is that last Sunday at the 10:30 service, we only had eight parking spots left. Faith will tell you, because she counts cars – that’s 90% capacity. The crisis is that we have sixty kids under the age of eighteen and only one part-time youth minister. Our crisis, is figuring out how to cope with our growth. Of course, we could panic about it. We could panic, knowing that our building project isn’t going to happen overnight. We could panic because we don’t know everybody. We could get that anxious, deer in the headlights look.
Or, we look at this from God’s perspective. As an opportunity. I believe that what we are experiencing at Holy Comforter is a God-given opportunity. To change, yes. To adapt. To disrupt and break open our church. So that more people can come to know the grace, and the love, and the mercy that we feel in this place. And that is my job, and this what I love to do. To envision the future. To figure out the way we need to move forward so that we don’t sit around wringing our hands. Because what we see as a crisis, God sees as an opportunity. It happened less than a week after Jesus ascended into heaven. So of course it’s going to happen with us.
And now, down the personal level. We all experiences crises in our lives. I don’t have to tell you that, you already know that. Good crises and bad crises. We get married, we have kids, we graduate, we start new jobs, we quit smoking. Even though those are good things, they are anxiety inducing. Then we get divorced, our friends get sick and die, we go bankrupt. Our anxiety goes from here, to here. The good news is that God takes whatever crisis we have to create new opportunities. That is simply how God works. Do not panic and freak out because something in your life has changed. Use it as a God-given opportunity to look for new life. For new meaning. Where we see a crisis, God sees an opportunity.
When you are anxious about the future; when you are worried sick about your kids and what they’ll do when they grow up; when you have concerns about the Church; do this one thing. Put yourself into that room with the eleven disciples as they choose Matthias. Remember that no matter where you are, or what has happened – remember that God will always show up. God will resolve the crisis.
It was a crisis when Jesus died on the cross. God used that as an opportunity to raise Jesus from the dead. It was a crisis when there were only eleven disciples. God used that as an opportunity to expand the Church. There will always be crises. When your anxiety level goes from here, to here, take a deep breath. And remember that there is always hope. There is always hope because Jesus is Lord.