Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost Sermon 2014

Acts 2:1-11 Pentecost

            It’s been a rough week. This week we lost a member and had a service of celebration of the resurrection and remembrance of his life. The passing of this member marked the 5th death in our congregation in the past 13 months. There has been a lot of grieving, a lot of sorrow, and a lot of work. It hasn’t been exactly what you all hoped for in the first year of a new pastor being here, it’s not what I had planned for my first year as your pastor, but it has happened none the less, and we find ourselves wondering “where do we go from here?”

            In this regard we are very much like the disciples at the opening of chapter 2 of Acts. They have gathered together again in the upper room, after having witnessed the death of Christ and celebrated his magnificent resurrection. Now they gather and wonder, what’s next.

            They knew that their lives had been changed forever by the risen Christ. They knew that things must change in order for his work to continue, they knew that the world outside of their walls was often hostile to their faith and Christ’s teachings. But they sat and waited on the presence of God to tell them where to go next.

            I imagine these Christ followers gathered together, some in fervent prayer, others muttering to one another about how much longer they could afford to stay put. I imagine them looking around waiting for someone to step up and take the initiative. There is a sense of fear of the unknown, but also a sense of anticipation. They don’t know what’s ahead, but given what they have just come through they trust that God will lead them, somehow.

            They sit there together and they pray, they talk, they remember and they dream. They dream of what could be, what might be, what has been. Some no doubt still held dreams of Christ returning to them to lead them on a march against the powers that be; other’s dreamed about this comforter that Christ had promised, who could it be, what would they look like, how would they recognize that person?; other’s dreamed of the good old days of the sermon on the mount, the feeding of the 5,000, the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain.

Dreams are a funny thing. Sometimes your wishes, hopes, goals or dreams are so clear you have no doubt as to what direction to take and which steps to take to get those dreams accomplished. Other times dreams change, messily, right in the middle and you find yourself doing everything you can just to keep your head above water. Dreams open us up to the hope of success and the very real possibility of failure.

They dream their separate dreams, perhaps occasionally shared, for 50 days.  It would have been easier on them to return back to their lives pre-Jesus. After all, most of them were skilled workers, they could have returned to their trades with some great stories to tell their families and children one day. They could have left that gathering of waiters and continued with their lives, occasionally speaking a good word about Jesus, remembering him when they went to the temple, putting those memories into a file marked “best days of my life.”

But something unites them together, something stronger than friendship or common experience, and they wait.

            As they are waiting a rushing wind enters their locked room, God once again showing that God won’t be kept out of our locked lives, locked hearts, and the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what they have been waiting for, the comforter whom they have waited upon. Something like tongues of flames come and rest upon them and they each begin telling the story of Jesus, the good news of the gospel. They begin to make such a ruckus that others in the community are drawn to them. And here’s where things get really weird, they can understand them. These people from all over the known world are hearing the good news in their native language from uneducated Galileans.

            This is it, the great thing we’ve been waiting for! This is the moment we are all taught is the birthday of the church, the victorious moment with bells ringing, angel choirs singing, right? That’s what we celebrate, isn’t it? And yet, and yet the first words we hear from the crowd are not ecstatic yells of joy, they are not choruses of amens, or pledges of financial support.

            No, the first words we hear from outsiders is “These guys must be wasted!”

            That doesn’t sound like instant success to me. That doesn’t sound like someone ready to jump on this Jesus bandwagon. In fact, it sounds like someone who thinks this is a bunch of hogwash and is ready to have the disciples tossed into the drunk tank.

            SO how can this be celebrated as the birthday of the church when the first response is failure?

            Because they didn’t let that failure stop them. Peter and the others did not turn around and tuck their tails because of one or two jeering members of the crowd. They did not give up because they were not instantly followed. Peter instead makes himself even more vulnerable and addresses the crowd head on telling them their assumptions are wrong and then telling them the story of Jesus and how Jesus had changed his life and theirs forever. And when the dust clears at the end of the day at least 3,000 people are baptized, and are welcomed into the faith.

            This is where we like to close the story, on a high note, on a note of victory. And it is good and it is a victory and it is worth celebrating together.

            But it can also set us up for disappointment if we look at it the wrong way. This passage does not tell us that if we believe, then everything we do as the body of Christ will be a huge success by the world’s standards.

            It does not mean that if we are faithful we will always be blessed with crowds of people with fistfuls of cash.

            The disciples all met horrific ends at the hands of the crowds they had come to witness to and share Christ with.

            Not exactly what we want to hear is it?

            But, as most stories, it doesn’t end here. Because even though they failed in the eyes of the world, they were faithful in the eyes of their God.

            Success doesn’t always look like success. Death on a cross doesn’t look like a victory. Turning the other cheek doesn’t look like strength. The Lord’s Supper, remembering Jesus’ death, doesn’t look like a celebration, and yet it is.

            God’s ways are not our ways, God’s victories are found in places that we least expect them.

            So as we gather here in this room, awaiting a might rushing wind, in the throes of grief ourselves I ask, what are you dreaming?

            What is it that you feel God wants you to do? This church to do? Where are your hopes leading you?

            Don’t focus on success in the eyes of the world. We will fail. It’s a given. Not everything we do or try to do will be an immediate success, some things will be colossal failures, and that’s okay. Because ultimately it’s not about what we do, it’s about what God is doing. Where God is working, the seeds God is planting and bringing into bud and preparing for harvest. We have to trust that no matter the immediate response to our efforts, our hopes and our future are not secured by what we can do, but rather by God’s promises. As a wise man once said “Resurrection only comes after crucifixion.”

            People of Christ Church, dream, Dream big this Pentecost. Dream of wonderful things, dream of daring initiatives, dream of a bright future. Dream and dream and dream some more. Then be pulled to your feet by the leading of the Holy Spirit, the flames of Pentecost, letting the Lord guide your steps and trusting that God has your back too!



Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension Sunday Sermon

Many thanks to the Vicar of Hosgmeade for the lovely ascension story!

Luke 24:44-53

            So, I have this thing about feet, as I may have mentioned before. The only feet I like are baby feet. Once they start walking around in big kid shoes and start getting sweaty, that’s when any and all affection for them stops! My children know that the fastest way to gross mommy out or get her to move is to put their feet anywhere near my face or hands.

            Why am I telling you this? Good question. It’s because I have always associated this passage with feet. Hear me out. There was this picture, I guess artwork is a more apt description of the ascension story hanging up in my preschool Sunday School classroom as a child. It showed the disciples all gathered in a nice semi-circle on a hillside, looking up. If you followed their line of sight you found a bank of big billowing fluffy white clouds, with two feet sticking out of the bottom. I’ll admit, it kind of freaked me out, and as an adult it kind of still does.

            The Ascension is one of those passages in the bible that I accept, but don’t understand. I know that it is important. If it wasn’t why would Luke record it not only once, but twice as we heard in our scripture readings from his books Luke and the Acts of the apostles? I get that Jesus returned to God and along with God prepared to send us the Holy Spirit. I understand that Jesus couldn’t just keep poping into the upper room every so often, or the disciples would never have left that room. I struggle however to come up with how it happened.

            I like to know the how, the why, the mechanics of things. Cause and effect, Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a comfort in understanding the workings of things. And I guess that’s what makes the Ascension a bit uncomfortable to me. I just don’t get it.

            So I accept it, state it when we say the apostles creed, and try largely not to think of it. I have agonized this week on how to address this text without really having to deal with the ascension part. I was trying really hard to gloss over it, give it a nod and then move on to the more practical elements of the text. But I realize that I cannot deal with the text without the ascension anymore than I could preach on the resurrection texts without the resurrection!

            Luke tells us that the disciples have gathered to talk with one another in the upper room and share the stories of those who have been witness to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. He breaks into their midst just as Simon has given his account, and the two disciples from the Emmaus road are giving their account of seeing the risen Lord. They are terrified. They are not sure if he is a ghost or if he is real. He shows them his hands and feet. He assures them of his flesh and bones and even takes some broiled fish and eats it in their presence. Then Jesus begins to remind them of his teachings.

            He reminds them of all that he has said to them. He reminds them of the words for the prophets and Moses of the traditions of the law and the poetry of the psalms. And then, in the midst of a day full of miracles he performs yet another. Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures.

            It is this moment that turns the disciples from a group of scared men holed up together to await their certain deaths, to men prepared to die to tell the truth. Jesus tells them that the truth, the gospel truth and good news is to be shared with all nations beginning right there in Jerusalem, the city that was so dangerous to them in that moment.

            The fullness of the scriptures unfolded before them, the presence of the resurrected Lord beside them, I think the disciples were rip roaring ready to run out into the streets and shout out their joy to the world. But Jesus knows that they wilol need more than excitement, more than boldness, more than a spiritual high to get through what this gospel sharing business will entail. So he tells them that more is coming. Stay in the city until I send you power from on high.

            Jesus had to know how excited they would be, afterall we as human beings can hardly wait to share good news. If this had append in our day or time Peter and John would have been live tweeting the events of the day. But when we prepare to share the Gospel, we need more than the high spirits of the moment, we need the guidance of something more than ourselves.

            When we share good news we need to be prepared for the questions, the doubts, the neigh sayers.  When Steve and I first got engaged we waited to tell people, not because we doubted our commitment, not because we were not excited, but because we needed to work some issues out among the two of us to be able to answer those inevitable questions, When? Where? Who? How? And but you’ve only known each other two months!

            Jesus gives the disciples the promise of power from on high, the promise of the Holy Spirit which we will celebrate next week as we remember the miracle of Pentecost. He tells them that they will not go out into the world alone, but that this power will go with them. This is a comfort and a joy to be sure.

            At this point I imagine the disciples are pretty keyed up, like a room full of kids who have just heard the music from the ice cream truck and have been given a dollar bill to get their hearts desire! So Jesus takes them out of the room and into the countryside of Bethany.

            Here’s where the next miracle occurs. He blesses them. Jesus who has prayed throughout his life here on earth, again lifts his hands to the heavens and blesses the disciples. Oh how I wish we had the words of that blessing written down, because I know there are times when my heart needs to hear words of encouragement and strength that also allow me to wait upon the further movement of the Lord! But I suppose I will have to settle for the many many other words of God recorded for me in this book and not lament those I do not yet know!

            Jesus blessed the disciples, prayed for them, just as he prays for us, entreating to God on our behalves daily. And as he is blessing them he is carried up into heaven.  And they worship him. They return to Jerusalem and they praise and worship him continually in the temple. They go not back to their locked room, but into the temple of God to continue in praise and worship and to await the gift that Jesus has yet promised.

            But about that going up into heaven thing, you thought I’d forgotten about that didn’t you? Well maybe I’ve decided there are some things that it’s better not to understand. Perhaps there are things that we just take on faith. Or perhaps there is another way to look at it.

            There is a story about the ascension that has helped me better understand, or come to peace with it this week. It’s said to be from the teachings of Abba Sayah, and ancient Christian mystic.

As Abba Sayah told the story, as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn’t bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus’ right leg, and refused to let go.
“John?” said Jesus “What are you doing?”
And John shouted back,
“If you won’t stay with us, then I’m coming too.”

Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg.
“I’m coming too,” she shouted.
By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
“Okay, Father… what do I do now?” And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
“Ascend!” the voice said.
“Ascend?” Jesus asked
“Ascend!” the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground. But the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The other apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching…

And then – what was this? Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old,- men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a kerfuffle -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!”

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the voice of a small child.
“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me”
“I can’t wait,” Jesus called back, “I don’t know how this thing works.”

But the little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air – Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog. But Jesus couldn’t stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.

At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself. But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him.

There’s a sense in which we can think about the Ascension as “Christmas backwards”. At Christmas, we concentrate on Jesus coming to earth to transform us with the presence of God. At Ascension, we focus instead on Jesus taking earth back with him into heaven…

Whichever way you look at it, the work of Jesus was to transform us and the world we live in by infusing everything with the presence of God. Heaven meets earth; earth is drawn into heaven.

And, as Abba Saya said. that’s where we’ve been ever since.

            And that’s where we stand this ascention and communion Sunday, drawn into heaven by the presence of our savior, drawn to the table to remember him once more, drawn to each other to exemplify his teachings and ministry in the world. Let us together affirm our faith in the mystery of Christ, using the Apostle’s creed.