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Breathing Lesson #4: A Breathing Cathedral

June 5, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (after Ascension Day), June 5, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Acts 1: 1-11

I find that I often do my best thinking with images. One of my favorite ways to think about faith is to look at art with children, because they see and say the most amazing things. I remember a time I was sitting with children between kindergarten and fourth grade and we were looking at pictures of the risen Jesus and the early Christian community. We had before us a painting called “Supper at Emmaus” by Croatian artist Ivo Dulćić. In the painting, the risen Christ is at table with two disciples after their walk together on the Emmaus road. Jesus and the disciples form a triangle, the disciples on each side of the table and Jesus at the head, one hand extended toward them with a broken loaf of bread and another raised in peace, or pointing to heaven. The disciple on his left is just rising, leaning in toward his savior. As the eye moves around the three figures, we realize that we have caught the disciples either just before, or in the very act, of recognizing the risen and living Jesus in their midst, just before he disappears from their sight. At some point, the viewer’s eye will comes to rest in the center of the painting on an unusually large and very colorful fish. The fish is the symbol used by the early church to represent the Christian confession: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. The first letters of these five words, in Greek, are an anagram spelling out the word icthus, or ‘fish.’

When I asked the children what they saw in this painting, they named the figures, commented on the fish (the fourth grader actually knew it was a symbol of the early church), and then the kindergarten student, the five year old, said, “Jesus looks like a rocket about to shoot up to the right hand of God his Father.” I sat amazed, because in fact he does look a bit like a rocket in the painting, stretching upward even as he reaches down with bread. Not only had she, probably unknowingly, quoted the Apostles Creed, but she captured ‘the moment’ so well. Having recognized Jesus, he would disappear from their midst, soon to return ascend to heaven. When I asked her what would happen next, this tiny theologian said, “The disciples will eat the fish and then tell everyone that they saw Jesus.”

There you go, Jesus appears, in sacramental form, feeding the disciples, and they tell everyone. A “Theology of Easter Community” from a tiny theologian named Annie.

On this final Sunday of Easter, let’s look back over the season. On the first Sunday after Easter, the risen Christ made his first appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus road and we celebrated communion with our children. The following Sunday we read of his appearance to the disciples, and then to Thomas, in a locked room where they were hiding out of fear. Jesus breathed new life and courage into them, and we too took deep breaths, relaxing into the rhythms of receiving and sharing that make up Christian spirituality. Then we read of the disciples gathering to read scripture, sing songs, and share their possessions, of the early church-in-formation, and of the bold preaching of Peter, Stephen, and Paul. Jesus appears, the church is formed, and the message goes out to transform the world. This is the shape of the Easter story.

Our text today tells us that for forty days Jesus spoke with his disciples about the Kingdom. What message did the risen Jesus give the early church? It was the same message he had embodied in his life and ministry. The God who creates us loves us, and calls us to love one another. Into the political, social, and economic mess of first century Palestine, into the alienation of neighbor from neighbor, and the despair of any kind of hopeful change, God has come, will come, will come again. The Kingdom is in our midst. The poor will be lifted up, the rich brought low, the humble inherit the earth and the peacemakers, the pursuers of justice, and the lovers of enemy will be blessed. For this, Christ died. When the going got tough, the people, including the disciples, fled, denied, and those who had eagerly embraced him yet fell away.

But God so loved the world. God sent the son was sent to embrace life, and though he died, yet he lives. For nothing can stop God’s love. Alive again, the message of the risen Christ is that not even fight, denial or failure; not even death can stop God’s love. God is faithful, period, to all of creation and to us. God embraces us and will yet accomplish through us God’s purpose. This, after all, is why we were created, called and gathered together; this is the message we bear and follow into the world.

Which is why I find the story we have today to be such a sad story, at least for a moment. Picture it: the risen Christ has been appearing to the disciple for forty days, bearing witness to God’s amazing faithfulness, calling gathering together and creating his church. And then he ascends, if not quite like a rocket, then like a cloud – subtly shifting and changing till it is gone and you cannot quite say when it was no longer there. He has left his disciples with a church and a promise: “I am sending you a Spirit who will help you bear witness even unto the ends of the earth.” But the disciples, all those gathered on the hill, are still gazing at the sky. The church is happening right here, taking shape, forming, but his disciples are staring up in to the clouds. When the two angels appear and ask them “So, what are you looking at?”, am I the only one who hears hear the voice of another angel saying, “He is not here. He is risen. Go and tell the others.”?

Walter Brueggemann is right to say that the stories of the Acts of the Apostles have a decidedly “churchly tilt”. Which means they are about us. With Jesus ascended, the church is now Christ’s body here on earth. St. Paul made this analogy scriptural, but St. Theresa of Avila made it poetry.

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

As to such are promised an advocate, a comforter, the spark of creation, divine breath, the Holy Spirit. To such will come the gift of Pentecost.

I think in images. The idea for my sermon series, Breathing Lessons, certainly came from Easter texts of Jesus’ breath, the spirit’s promise, and the church’s expectation. But I also had a vision, a picture of the church, this church, in particular this sanctuary, as a living body, that needed to breathe.

When I accepted the call to be the pastor for this community, folks asked me how we could bring folks in, increase attendance (and contributions), and let our neighbors know about the good things we are doing in here. Well, we have opened the doors, literally. On most weekdays our front doors, meaning the red doors on North Broadway, are open wide all day long, and the sanctuary open for prayer. And our neighbors have noticed. At a wedding reception two weeks ago no less than six people (non-members but White Plains residents) commented on the open front doors. And people have wandered in. Some to pray, some to see a sanctuary, one to play the piano. They have all been welcomed.

We have cleaned the sanctuary, painted the Church House and power-washed our sign out front. We updated the church website, started a blog, and even took out an ad on facebook, which, by the way, made five million impressions on computer screens in a ten mile radius of White Plains during the five weeks it was running. As a result, 500 new people visited our web site, and seventy people otherwise unaffiliated with our congregation have become “fans” of our church, reading our news and receiving my sermons. Those who have responded are overwhelmingly young, between 18 and 30 years old, and intentionally embracing multi-ethnic and multi-racial, multi-national identities.

Opening our doors was a necessary first step toward allowing this place to breathe. But to really breathe, this place must not just be open to receive; it must have something to send out. In and out, inhale and exhale, remember? That was breathing lesson #1. These are the rhythms of the Spirit and spirituality, of breath and life.

Our Sunday worship embodies this rhythm. Look at our bulletin: each week we are gathered and sent: we gather together, proclaim the Word, respond to the God’s Word, and then we are sent out, bearing and following the Word into the world.

The Easter season embodies this rhythm. The forty days from Resurrection to Ascension see the church gathered together. The ten days from Ascensions to Pentecost see the church expectant and waiting – praying – actively praying for God’s future vision to come alive, be ignited, be inspired. And then comes Pentecost, which we celebrate next week. This, finally, is about the church on fire with, blown away by, inspirited with and inspired by the Spirit of God, ready to bear and follow God’s word into a world of need and unto the ends of the earth.

This will be our motto for the coming season, with both sides of equal importance and receiving our equal attention: “Gathering is for the church, but the church is for the world.”

Folks, this place must breathe!! Inhale and exhale, receive and share, gather and be sent. Today we receive new members into our congregation. Next week we baptize an infant and confirm two youth. The following week we will be commissioned and invited to recommit ourselves in mission.

May this place be, may we be, may the White Plains Presbyterian Church be a breathing cathedral, a living prayer for the City of White Plains and for the world.

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