It was good to be on vacation, and now it’s good to be back again.
We were at the Grand Canyon for a few days, and in San Diego for a few days after that, and as a photographer I loved taking pictures of sunrise over the Canyon, and sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
But as a church geek, I thought the high point of the trip was worshiping on Sunday in a very interesting parish in San Diego. We were staying in the North Park neighborhood, which is a lively place – Forbes magazine lists it as “one of America’s best hipster neighborhoods.”
I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it did have some microbreweries and a lot of restaurants and coffee shops – which was certainly good for me! – and a lot of those classic California bungalow style houses, including the one we stayed in, courtesy of Airbnb. Which turned out to be more or less around the corner from the Episcopal church in North Park.
I wouldn’t call it a hipster church, although it seemed to be diverse in the way you might expect in a city neighborhood. But the most striking thing about this parish is that it’s become a church home for the South Sudanese community in San Diego.
So some of the women were dressed in clothing made of very colorful and striking African print fabrics. The choir up front had a drum and quite a few tambourines. The church website warned that we might sing in Arabic and Swahili, and most of the singing was not in English, but we had the words in the service leaflet and it wasn’t hard to sing along. And God was praised!
The prayers were in English, straight out of the Book of Common Prayer, so in that sense I felt quite at home. When it was time for the usual kind of church announcements, they were made first in English, and then repeated in Swahili.
And the sermon was good – not too long, with a clear point – which was that church might be a place where we go on Sundays – a place we enjoy and where like to be – but it’s not our home. Church is not where we live. It’s not a place to escape the world. As much as we might like being here, it’s not a place we get to stay.
And so there’s always going to be some tension for us between wanting to feel safe and comfortable here, on the one hand, and knowing that our real purpose in coming is to prepare ourselves to be out in the world.
That sermon was still fresh in my mind earlier in the week when I started to prepare to preach here today, and the thing that struck me right away is that this theme from the sermon I heard last week is perfect for this week, too. (Thank you, Jesus!)
In today’s first reading, from the Book of Acts, we see Jesus as he leaves his disciples for good. He’s lifted up, it says, and a cloud takes him out of their sight. We call this the Ascension, and it’s the feast the church celebrated on Thursday.
It’s a curious image, but don’t get stuck on this mental picture of Jesus rising like a hot air balloon. The point is that he’s gone from earth in his human body, and in this parting moment, he gives his followers some explicit directions for how to carry on without him.
The dialog begins with the apostles asking if this is the time when God would finally restore the kingdom to Israel.
In other words, will God finally step up now and make everything right?
Because they still just couldn’t get past their wishful thinking that this was why Jesus had come.
They want God to fix the world for them – and Jesus’ answer to their question, basically, is, no – you’re the ones who are going to be out there now, working in the world on my behalf.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” – that, of course, is a reference to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday – “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And while they’re still staring after Jesus, two men in white robes suddenly appear and ask why they’re standing there, looking up to heaven. Turn your attention back to earth, in other words.
And they go back to the upper room where they’ve been staying, and devote themselves to prayer.
You could think of it as a brief respite, a chance to refuel and prepare for the work ahead, because a prayerful relationship with God is the foundation of all we do – of who we are in faith, really.
And then what comes next is the arrival of the Spirit in wind and fire – and they are out on the streets, telling the world “about God’s deeds in power.”
Like those disciples, we come here to pray and prepare for our work in the world.
I like the way the preacher last week described that work. He said we go out to look for God’s work in the world around us and point it out to our family and friends, to our neighbors and the people we work with, so they can see it, too.
So in order to really understand the significance of his insistence that church isn’t a safe place we escape to, but a place where we prepare to go out again as Christ’s witnesses, you have to know something about the people he was preaching to.
South Sudan is a place that has been devastated by violence and now by famine.
We have a day of commemoration for Sudanese Christians on one of our supplementary liturgical calendars. It’s called the day of the Martyrs of the Sudans, and it’s observed on May 16, recalling the declaration that was signed on May 16, 1983, by members of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches of Sudan, committing themselves not to forsake God under the persecution they were enduring under Sudan’s Islamist government.
Last Sunday, the choir and some others were getting ready to go to the cathedral in San Diego for a special Evensong in honor of those martyrs. And we’re not talking here about a couple of people who died centuries ago. For all I know, they might include relatives of people who were in church with me last week.
Two and a half million people were killed. Churches and schools were destroyed. Four million people were displaced inside the country, and a million left as refugees.
And I couldn’t help thinking that if anyone would be entitled to experience church as a place of safety and comfort, a place to get away from the hardships and pain of this world, it would be these South Sudanese.
But no, that isn’t how it works.
Yes, you can come into church and enjoy being here, you can pray and praise God with drums and tambourines or whatever it is that best expresses the music that’s in your heart, but ultimately our purpose here is to prepare to be sent out again, as witnesses to the saving, transforming Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News our world so badly needs to hear.
The book we’re reading in our Wednesday morning study group now talks about the things we do here on Sunday mornings as practice for when we leave.
And as that book points out, we Episcopalians are particularly good at living in the tension between things that seem to be opposite, but are not. We believe that the Eucharist itself is both a personal moment of close encounter with God, and something bigger than that. This is how the book explains it:
“Through our participation in this sacramental action of sharing bread and wine,” it says, “we are reconstituted as Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s life, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world. We leave each service of Holy Communion renewed so that we return to our daily lives and work as a sign and witness to Christ’s reign.”
Our basic Christian identity is not to be churchgoers – it’s to be Christ’s witnesses out in the world. The basic purpose of coming to church is not to be comfortable, it’s to be prepared for that mission.
Pointing out where God is working in the world, and pointing out where what’s happening isn’t consistent with the way Jesus taught us to live.
And part of our preparation for that is listening to God’s word in holy Scripture … and pondering what it means in our world today.
Neither Word nor Sacrament is just about our own personal one-on-one relationship with God.
Sometimes in church we can be comfortable, but there must also be times when – if we’re really faithful to this Jesus Christ who we say is Lord – coming up against his truth is going to make us uncomfortable. We’re going to come up against reminders that our values as Christians are different from those of the world. We’re going to have to answer the question for ourselves about who it is we faithfully follow – Jesus? Or someone else?
In that first reading from Acts, we hear Jesus’ words to his followers just before he departs this earth in bodily form.
“You will be my witnesses.”
But the Gospel takes us back a little earlier in the story, and we hear the prayer of Jesus for his followers on the night before he died.
As the Father has sent me to the world, so I have sent you into the world.
And so we continue here to prepare to be sent out again – knowing that Jesus is with us through his Spirit even as we go – to carry out the mission we have been given.
 https://www.forbes.com/pictures/mhj45jmeh/13-north-park-san-diego-ca-2/#5b6f5f8acc1b, accessed May 26, 2017.
 Acts 1:8 NRSV
 Acts 2:11 NRSV
 A People Called Episcopalians, John H. Westerhoff with Sharon Ely Pearson, p. 17.
 John 17:1-11 NRSV paraphrase