The In-Between Times Lent V, Year B; March 22, 2015
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction: The In-Between Times. Just this week we have seen our first glimpses of the arrival of spring in East Tennessee. Forsythia and daffodils, the first spring flowers to make their appearance, are blooming, and we have actually had several days of near balmy temperatures. But, of course, we remember that we live in beautiful East Tennessee, and therefore our weather is subject to constant and dramatic change. We are living in a time in-between the seasons.
II. And it is an in-between time at Ascension as well. There is much transition in our midst. Most of you know the details. Fr. Rob leaves Ascension on April 12th to become Rector and Priest in Charge of two parishes in Rhode Island, while Bettie Corey and I both retire on April 30th. Suffice it to say that our equilibrium has been challenged! Transitions often unfold in stages, don’t they, and each stage typically consists of a set of opportunities and challenges. Right now we are in the dual process of saying good-bye and anticipating welcoming a new spiritual leader. In just a few minutes you will hear from our Sr. Warden about Ascension’s progress in recruiting a new Priest in Charge. The news is good. God is good!
But before we jump to the happy new beginning that we hope for let’s ponder the spiritual opportunities and challenges of the in-between time we are in. We are in the process of saying farewell to one another. Good-byes are hard. They are particularly hard when the persons saying the goodbye deeply love one another. I have shared with you on numerous occasions how very much you have meant to me and the gift that Ascension has given me of being such a beautiful and loving place to conclude my full-time vocational career. In all seriousness, a Rector could not ask for more. And as time passes, I am continuing to hear from many of you about how much you have valued our relationship. Thank you for your affirmation and your kindness.
III. But we come back to the question as we always do of what is the spiritual essence of the in-between time? Jesus is entering such an in-between time with his apostles in today’s Gospel lesson from John. As John tells the story, Jesus has already brought Lazarus back from the dead, had his feet washed by Mary, and made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Events are quickening for Jesus and he knows it. In today’s Gospel he is trying to prepare his followers for the events of his Passion – his trial, his crucifixion, and his Resurrection. Jesus is teaching about the Great Reversal that captures the core of Christian belief – “those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These are startling words; what does Jesus mean? He used a familiar image to explain that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In other words, out of death will come new life; out of endings, new beginnings; out of the crucifixion will come the Resurrection; and out of this in-between time at Ascension will come a new chapter of life for this community of believers. Right now this new life is more specifically clear in the mind of God, but have no doubt, a new and glorious chapter is in store, and God is at the center of how events will unfold to bring this new life at Ascension into being. What I believe Jesus asks us to do this morning is to have faith in the process, hold firm in that faith, and not to allow fear or grief to undermine our steadiness and participation in living through this in-between time.
III. Spring makes the point. Several years ago we hosted the popular and engaging author Anne Lamott. Listen to how she describes transition and transformation into new life: She writes:
“Amazingly, the very first bulbs we planted began to bloom. Within a week, there were dozens of daffodils in the yard. When this finally happens in late winter every year, I am astonished. Because I have always given up. In November and December when I plant them, I get swept up in the fantasy that the earth, after so much rain, will be rich and loamy.
At that point, planting bulbs sounds like a romantic and fun thing to do, but it never is. The earth is rocky and full of roots; it’s clay, and it seems doomed and polluted, yet you dig little holes for the ugly shriveled bulbs, throw in a handful of poppy seeds, and cover everything over with dirt, and you just know you’ll never see them again – it’s all death and clay and shrivel. Your hands are nicked from the rocks, your nails are black with soil . . . Yet here we are in the last days of March, with daffodils everywhere, and poppies waiting in the wings.”
And here we are in the last days of Lent, anticipating with all our being what lies waiting for us in the wings.
III. So what is waiting in the wings for us? Well, we know there will be change. We are about to end Lent and enter into Holy Week. Together we will live out the Easter story with its sometimes dark in-between time and its glorious crescendo of the new life of the Resurrection. I hope, as I have hoped each year since I arrived here, that you will all participate in the full story of the Passion, all of Holy Week as well as Easter Sunday. And together we will enjoy many farewell celebrations together, such as the Memories and Music Program this coming Tuesday evening. Through these events we will remember together and share our gratitude for the our experiences. I would like to offer some wisdom that I learned from Peg, who learned it from her Dad, who at 92 continues to be active as a retired United Methodist Church minister. Throughout Peg’s childhood her parents served a number of churches in East Tennessee, including the church on the hill in Gatlinburg and one here in Knoxville while Peg finished high school at Fulton. Peg’s Dad observed that some ministers believe that a sign that their ministry in a particular church has been successful, is the degree to which they are missed when they leave. In fact, he taught his children, one of the signs of a successful ministry is the loving way a church welcomes its next spiritual leader and joins with their new minister in moving forward together. I anticipate that the ministry that you and Peg and I have shared together will be followed by a deeply loving and thriving ministry with the Priest in Charge that you and God have called to Ascension.
V. Conclusion. Leaving is hard; saying good-bye is hard. Truly it’s not my strongest suit. So you may need at times to help me say good-bye as well. In the meantime, we are here at Ascension together. We are claiming God’s promises of new life together, we are preparing to re-experience Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection together, and we are never forgetting that it is God who is at the center of all we do and all we are. And my friends, God is faithful and will give us exactly what we need. Thanks be to God.