Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Rethink Church: Advent Photo-A-Day, Dec. 25 The “Light” and the Doctor

Images from the BBCs Doctor Who Christmas Special (12-25-13) "The Time of the Doctor" except for the picture of the man with the eyes, i.e. Peter Capaldi, the next Doctor. That image is from the recent DW 50th Anniversary Special which gave a brief glimpse of the forthcoming doctor from a future time. (It's all wibbly wobbley timey wimey)
Images from the BBCs Doctor Who Christmas Special (12-25-13) “The Time of the Doctor” except for the picture of the man with the eyes, i.e. Peter Capaldi, the next Doctor. That image is from the recent DW 50th Anniversary Special which gave a brief glimpse of the forthcoming doctor from a future time. (It’s all wibbly wobbley timey wimey)

Instead of the usual image of the Christ child or Light, I decided to do something slightly different. For the non-Whovians out there, this is a collage of photos that pay homage to today’s airing of the traditional Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Time of the Doctor and actor Matt Smith’s final story as the bow-tie wearing “mad man with a box”

A staple of the show’s 50-year run is the Time Lord adventuer’s ability to “regenerate,” a plot device created decades ago when it was necessary for another actor to play the title role. At the end of today’s Christmas Special: The Time of the Doctor, Smith’s 11th will regenerate into the 12th doc to be played by Peter Capaldi (the image in the collage of the man with the eyes, from the recent DW 50th Anniversary Special in which viewers got a brief glimpse of the doctor to be).

Regeneration occurs when the Doctor is mortally wounded from committing a great act of self sacrifice to save the world. During regeneration, a great magnitude of rays burst from the Doctor as he takes on a new physical form and personality traits while still maintaining his memory and essence.

It is no secret that the most popular sci-fi show in history contains numerous spiritual themes (good v. evil; redemption; justice; mercy; love; hope; identity; tolerance; compassion; sacrifice), probably more so since it’s re-launching in 2005. For me and other Christian-Whovians, the Doctor (like other fictional heroes, Frodo Baggins, Aslan, Harry Potter, etc.) is a Christ figure. The Doctor, through his characteristics and actions—particularly the whole regeneration bit—points us toward Emmanuel  whose birth, life, death and resurrection transforms the world and people’s lives with love.

The regeneration of the Doctor on the day in which we once again celebrate the Light shining in the darkness is quite fitting. In the midst of a broken and suffering world (or even universe) and despite the changes that occur in our lives (the good, the bad and the bittersweet) the story of God-with-us continues on.

We will be transformed regardless of the way in which the Light of the Lord–who exists throughout all of history and time–enters our lives. And we will be beckoned to be part of a great adventure that is much bigger and much more challenging, mysterious and fantastic than we could ever imagine!

Merry Christmas,
Geronimo,*
Peace,
Amen!

(*For all you non-Whovians out there, “Geronimo” is the catch-phrase the 11th Doctor utters gleefully in the thrill of a moment like when his ship the TARDIS is crashing or he is escaping from menacing Dyleks, Cyber-men and the like or jumping into another mysterious adventure)

A Pile of Good Things

 A Sermon for Sunday August 18, 2013, Galatians 6:6, 9-10 and Ephesians 2:10

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 3.34.32 PMLast month, I finished up a whirlwind of summer youth trips with the High School Mission Trip at Urban Mission Camp in Mobile, AL, and the Middle School Montreat Conference at Maryville College in Maryville, TN.

But in between these two incredible faith-shaping experiences, I managed to squeeze in just enough time to watch an hour-long episode of my new favorite TV series…Doctor Who!

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi program in the world and considered to be the most successful sci-fi series of all time.

Doctor Who originally ran from 1963-1989 and then went on hiatus for more than a decade. But in 2005, the series was re-launched, resulting in high ratings and a huge cult following among new generations of viewers (known as Whovians). Even the legendary director Steven Spielberg has said, “The world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who.”[1]

If you’ve never watched the show, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a mysterious humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box but is much bigger on the inside. The Doctor is a thin man with a whimsical grin who is intrigued by every aspect of life and who has a penchant for tweed jackets and bow ties because “they’re cool.”

With the aid of a human friend and his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor faces a variety of foes while trying to save civilizations, right wrongs, and help various humans and aliens throughout the galaxy and at different periods in history—past, future and present.

In the episode of Doctor Who that I viewed amid the last two youth trips of the summer, the Doctor and his friend Amy Pond travel to the year 1890 to visit the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, weeks before the artist (known for his frequent bouts with mental illness) commits suicide.

They soon discover that an alien monster that only Van Gogh can see is killing villagers throughout the villages of southeast France.  And after defeating the creature, the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent to a modern day museum in Paris so that he can discover his legacy as an artist[2]:

 ……………………………….

[For those who were unable to see the scene shown today in worship, here are some pictures and synopsis, along with key dialogue]

Vincent-and-the-Doctor-doctor-who-12772213-800-675

Upon their arrival at the museum, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent make their way to the Van Gogh exhibit. Vincent’s eyes light up in astonishment as he realizes that the museum visitors are admiring his entire life’s work on the walls.

As Vincent gazes around the room, the Doctor pulls the museum curator aside (but within enough distance for Van Gogh to hear) and asks him:

“Where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

 The curator responds passionately:

“To me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

A tear-filled Vincent turns toward the curator, gives him a warm embrace and thanks him for his kind words. Before the curator has time to process what has happened—that he has been embraced by the greatest painter of all time—Vincent has disappeared with the Doctor and Amy.

Upon their return to 19th century Provence, Vincent steps off the TARDIS and exclaims:

“This changes everything! I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.”

The Doctor thanks the artists for a wonderful adventure, and Vincent replies enthusiastically:

“You’ve turned out to be the first doctor ever actually to make a different to my life.”

The Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes and then board the TARDIS where Amy suggests they immediately return to the museum in Paris.

3amyelevenhug

Amy is convinced that Vincent Van Gogh will not have taken his life and that his newfound hope will have inspired hundreds of new paintings for the world to treasure. But when she arrives at the museum, she realizes that Van Gogh never painted another canvas because the artist, overwrought with his mental illness, fatally shot himself not long after saying goodbye to Amy and the Doctor.

With tears running down her cheeks, Amy says to the Doctor:

“We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The kind Doctor embraces his friend and compassionately says to her:

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

…………………………………

We didn’t make a difference at all—how often do we say to ourselves those exact words uttered by Amy Pond?

We fed the hungry and gave financial resources to the homeless…but they are still starving and sleeping on the streets.

We sent our youth to a conference to hear about God’s love…but at home, they still spend time with teens that have a bad influence on them.

We embody love and mercy in our lives… but there is still violence and bloodshed in our cities and world.

We make policies and establish laws and rules to protect people from harm…but there are still folks who find a way to destroy others’ lives.

“We didn’t make a difference,” it seems.

And that crushing feeling of failure makes us throw our hands in the air and say: Why bother?

Why should I even try doing the good thing when all of these bad things keep on happening in spite of what any of us do?

Why?

It’s the question I’m asked most often in ministry.

Why?

Why do church people go on mission trips in the U.S. and other countries to help the poor and oppressed?

Why do youth want to spend a week at a conference learning about Jesus, the Bible and their faith?

Why do we serve when it doesn’t appear to be effecting the way people treat one another?

Why do we pray for peace when war rages around us?

The poor are still poor.

The hungry are still hungry.

The violent are still killing the innocent.

The oppressors are still stepping on the oppressed.

The broken are still broken.

Nothing is changing, so …

Why?

I imagine the early Christian church of Jews and Gentiles were asking that same question of Why? as they hid from the Roman Empire that wanted them dead for choosing Jesus over the emperor Caesar:

Why do we keep following Christ’s teachings and keeping God’s commandments to love when our neighbors are being dragged from their homes and into the streets to die?

Why do we keep on with the faith of our ancestors when we are being persecuted for our beliefs?

Nothing has changed. We worship, serve and love in the name of God who is sovereign in our lives…but the Roman Empire still comes after us.

We live a life devoted to God but “we didn’t make a difference.”

Why keep on keeping on? Why?

The apostle Paul, who was redeemed by God for his vile acts of persecution toward Jews and Jesus followers, answers the early Church’s Why?  in letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.

The way Paul sees it, we are what God has made us, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

The reason why we are to do good and to keep on doing good is because that is how God has made us. It is in our design as human beings and beloved creations of the Divine. It is the way of life that God intends for us to have and embody every…single…day.

Paul is not being unrealistic or naïve in making such a statement. The apostle as much as much as anyone recognizes the difficulty of doing good in a world where badness and brokenness reside. So he encourages churches that even in the midst of pain, they must share in all good things:

 Let us not grow weary in doing what is right…So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

The Doctor echoes this truth beautifully when he says to Amy Pond:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t escape his demons.

Yes, the poor continue to look for their next meal or a roof over their heads.

Yes, the oppressed struggle to survive in a system where the powers try to silence their voice.

Yes, people are hurt and killed because of the cruelty and hate of others.

But not a single bad thing or act of brokenness can tarnish the good things or render them insignificant.

As the musician Christine Kane says in her 2004 song “The Good You Do” which will be played for today’s Offertory: “No lost hope, no violent point of view…no fast pace, no jaded attitude…no dark place, no debt and no abuse can erase all the good you do.”

Last week, I emailed Christine Kane to ask her what inspired her to write such a beautiful piece. Through a spokesperson she answered the email by saying:

The song came as I spoke with so many people who were doing good things in the world, but were becoming a little bitter as things did not seem to change. The song is a reminder to keep doing good no matter what. There is the light in every person—it is our choice to share the light and no bad thing can take that light away. You just keep sharing it.

Kane’s reply to me as well as her song reminded me of another message that Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, familiar words that remind us to keep faith and keep doing good:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…What then are we to say about these things? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Each and every one of you has done and is doing good in this church, this community and world…

You’ve gone on youth conferences and youth mission trips to stretch your faith and to nurture the faith of our young people. You’ve built relationships with those who are often ignored like the poor, the underprivileged, the developmentally challenged and the geeky pimple-faced teenager.

You’ve fed the hungry and housed the homeless by volunteering at the Duluth Co-Op, providing a meal through Rainbow Village and by helping out with Family Promise Host Week.

You’ve donated blood to save lives.

You’ve signed up to teach church school or be a youth adviser.

You’ve prepared communion, been an usher or acolyte, collected and counted the offering.

You’ve brought food to put on the Fellowship Table between worship services and you’ve participated in numerous Fellowship  events.

You’ve agreed to be a prayer partner for someone attending the Adult Mission Trip to Honduras.

You’ve comforted a friend who grieves over a broken relationship.

You’ve shown kindness to a neighbor, prepared your children for school, dropped off clothes at the Goodwill.

You’ve planted gardens and cared for your pets and other animals.

You’ve shared your gifts in song to help illumine God’s presence for someone who sits alone in the dark.

You’ve delivered a meal to someone who was ill.

You’ve been patient and respectful with a church member whose opinion was different from yours.

You’ve served as an elder on Session to discern how we are to be the body of Christ within and beyond these walls.

You’ve welcomed the stranger and loved those who are kept on the margins of society.

You’ve added to the pile of good things.

You’ve made a difference.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

Continue to add to the pile of good things.

And never stop doing what you were made to do.

Amen.

2jucZ


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0 Dr. Who celebrates its 50th year in the Fall and is awaiting its 8th season since the 2005 relaunch. If you are interested in watching Dr. Who but don’t have time to view all 7 seasons (currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD) you can start with Season 5 in which Matt Smith became the 11th Doctor and found new companions to explore the universe.

[2] Trailer for the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and The Doctor” Season 5, 2010, BBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8PkCEc1Fjo

Doctor and Amy, ‘Pile of Good Things’ quote-clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjUKGfBW74o

The song that plays during the scenes at the museum is “Chances” by the British indie-rock band Athlete, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/athlete/chances.html and youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWayL5NBH80