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.

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Searching for the Signal

A Sermon for Sunday June 23, I Samuel 3:1-13 and 15-18; Mark 5:21 and 24b-34

Last Sunday on Father’s Day, my mother-in-law Anne gave me a card with a depiction of the popular Star Wars movie characters CP30 and R2D2 on the cover having an intense discussion while aboard the starship Millennium Falcon. The card reads: “In a galaxy far, far away, two droids are discussing their most dangerous and difficult mission ever… raising kids. Happy Father’s Day to a Stellar Dad.” On the inside of the card is another picture of C3P0 and R2D2, accompanied by a recorded mash-up of their dialogue from the epic film series, which amusingly depicts how a conversation on parenting might occur between the two droids:

C3P0:              “How did we get into this mess?”

R2D2:                (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:              “‘Exciting’ is hardly the word I would choose.

R2D2:                 (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0               “We seem to be made to suffer, it’s our lot in life.

R2D2:               (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0               “I’ve got to rest before I fall apart

R2D2:               (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:    “Surrender is a perfectly acceptable alternative in extreme circumstances!”

R2D2:      (series of beeps and whistles)

C3P0:       “We’re doomed!”

R2D2:        (series of beeps and whistles)

The first film in the franchise to be released, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), was shown in Anderson Auditorium one evening during the Montreat High School Youth Conference, an annual summer event that occurs at the Montreat Conference Center near Black Mountain, NC.

Often the planning team leaders show a fun family-friendly film that relates to the particular theme of the conference…like the 2008-themed “Throw Open the Doors,” when the planning team showed the Disney-Pixar sensation Monster’s Inc., the story of two silly well-meaning monsters that try to return a toddler back to her home via her bedroom door. But to show Star Wars, a 34-year-old film that spawned a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, seemed like an odd choice to show this year for a conference whose theme is “Searching for the Signal.”  What does a movie about droids, spaceships, light-sabre duels and a guy named Luke Skywalker have anything to do with “signals?”

I’ll admit that even for a huge Star Wars fan like myself, the connection wasn’t immediate clear…until I started contemplating the film. For those who have never seen Star Wars, which was conceived by George Lucas, or who haven’t seen the original movie in a long time, I highly recommend a viewing. The film, like many in the science fiction genre, contains tremendous insights on what it means for us to be “Searching for the Signal.”

Before we glean wisdom from Star Wars, as well as the blockbuster science fiction/adventure movies of Steven Spielberg, let’s first delve into the concept of a “signal.” On the first full day of the conference, keynote speaker, Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, explained that the signal among all the many signals (signs, sounds, voices) in our lives is Jesus.  He said, “Jesus is the signal because God becomes a human being. Incarnation. In flesh… God does the most unique thing in the history of the universe.”

Following this statement, nearly 700 youth and adults delved into a Bible study on the nativity story, Jesus’ birth account in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  And in both accounts we discovered characters that are searching for the signal that is Jesus…folks who are looking toward the skies for a sign of the divine love that has come to humbly dwell on earth—

 the wise men from the East who follow an evening star that leads them to Jesus’ home in Bethlehem and…

the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, who after seeing a chorus of angels praise God in the night sky, go to the manger where Jesus has been born.

Throughout history, human beings have made numerous attempts to search and follow the signal that is Jesus. Over and over again, we strive to hear how we are being called to speak God’s truth with grace; to be messengers for God’s peace and justice; to be God’s instruments for healing and reconciliation; and to be embodiments of God’s unconditional and steadfast love.

We discover day in and day out how we are called to live our lives in sync with God’s signal. But sometimes we receive mixed signals in the world around us—

 signals that distract from God’s signal or God’s voice.

Like the young Samuel who mistakes God’s voice for his teacher Eli or the hemorrhaging woman who routinely hears the voices of society telling her she is unclean and unworthy, we too hone in on various voices or signals that compete for God’s attention—

signals of wealth, fame, power, selfishness, individualism, greed, jealousy, anger, hate, revenge, and violence–signals that keep us focused solely on ourselves and our needs

signals that twist and deform and dehumanize God’s own creation…the world, other human beings and ourselves.

The daily challenge is to discern God’s signal from all the others—to tease out God’s calling or God’s choosing of us to be shining lights of love, hope and wonder in the world.  Rodger Nishioka told us at the conference that we can best tune in to God’s signal through spiritual disciplines, also known as the practices of discipleship like fasting, praying, confronting systems of injustice verbally and non-violently, reaching out to the “least of these,” and proclaiming the truth of God’s loving and just kingdom for all people. These disciplines, these practices of discipleship, are not easy, Rodger reminded us, “They take work.” They take hard work.

These disciplines will attract some wayward glances, harsh criticisms, obstinate views and, sometimes, violence.  The disciplines are not words and actions that easily come from within.  Remember that Samuel was barely 12-years-old when God speaks to him and asks the boy to deliver a difficult message to Eli the priest. Samuel is afraid to talk to Eli because he doesn’t want to upset or anger the man who has been like a father and mentored him in the ways of God. But God chooses the boy (likely because of his direct and sincere honesty) to speak the truth in love. And as hard as it will be to talk to his mentor, Samuel finds the strength to say: Eli, God says you can no longer be a priest in the temple because your sons have done many evil things in God’s sight, and you have not held them accountable or disciplined them.  

And then there’s the hemorrhaging woman who truly has the deck stacked against her: she suffers from a cruel and painful disease that was not made any better by the poking and prodding of doctors.  She is poor from having spent her money on medical bills. She is an outcast because of her gender and her illness. But God chooses her (likely because of her perseverance and courage) to hear about the ministry of Jesus in the nearby towns of Galilee. And as hard as it will be for her to be in public, the hemorrhaging woman, who has endured for 12 years, finds the strength to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

Samuel and the hemorrhaging woman aren’t the only ones who work hard to respond to God’s call. History is abundant with stories of people who affected great change because of the hard work of discipleship—of responding to God’s choosing—despite the difficulty of the task or resistance from others:

Alice Paul, an activist whose work for women’s voting rights resulted in the passage of the 19th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., prominent activists and leaders in the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

Caesar Chavez, a labor leader and civil rights activist who co-created The National Farm Workers Association and who led successful efforts in the 1950s and 60s to change laws that denied fair wages and rights to farmers.

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, activists who led peaceful campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and ushered in democracy and genuine reconciliation between blacks and whites in the 1980s and 1990s.

A half-million citizens of Czechoslovakia whose non-violent revolution in Prague’s Wencelas Square in 1989 led to the overthrow of a centuries long communist regime in the country.

Scores of Egyptian protestors (many youth and young adults with social networking skills) whose acts of civil disobedience in January also saw the overthrow of an oppressive government that had existed for decades.

Thousands of people, including mainline Protestants, whose advocacy for civil rights in recent days, weeks and month is leading to more fair, loving and equal treatment of gays and lesbians.

The 50-something children of PHPC’s Vacation Bible School who will literally make the earth a greener place because of the lessons they learned last week about caring for God’s creation.

Over 6,000 youth and adults who by the end of this summer will have heard God’s signal to make great change in their communities and world for people who are suffering.

The High School Youth Mission Team of 18 youth and 10 adults who embark this coming Thursday on a week-long trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to work with PCUSA missionaries and Heifer International to help Hondurans and their communities build a better life.

The PHPC congregation and church leaders whose efforts to partner with the organization World Relief has resulted in the sponsorship of and friendship with an incredible family from Burma.

The Lan family, Ngun Lan (Lan-eh), Sui Thluai (Swee), Gin-tay (Christina), Van Siang Bik (Alex), who fled Christian persecution in their home country of Burma, lived for many years in a refugee camp in Malaysia and are adjusting to the culture shock of life in America and Duluth, Georgia…brave and courageous people who are listening intently to God’s call and signal for them in a strange new land.

So what does all of this (you’re probably wondering) have to do with that other strange land and world known as Star Wars which I mentioned earlier? What does “Searching for the Signal” have to do with that film or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) E.T. (1982) and the latest, a collaboration with J.J. Abrams, Super 8 (2011)?

Well, each one of these films, and many more, focus on one story (although told in many different and fascinating ways):  The main character(s) look to the skies for a signal that there is something more powerful than them in the universe… a something that enables them to be more compassionate and humane toward another…

In Star Wars, the farm boy Luke Skywalker becomes aware of a “force” that signals to him that he is meant to help bring peace and reconciliation to the galaxy. Luke fulfills this task, over the course of three films, by freeing his father Anakin from the dark side of the “force” which is personified as the terrifying Darth Vader. Luke’s compassion leads him to eventually see the face of his father behind the menacing mask.

                                                                 In Close Encounters, blue-collar employee Roy Neary is called to investigate a power outage when his truck stalls and he is bathed in light from two spaceships from above. After this close encounter, strange visions and five musical notes, a thematic signal throughout the film, keep running through Roy’s mind, ultimately leading him into the wilderness where government scientists are communicating, via the same musical tones, with space aliens on a humongous mother ship. Roy and the scientists demonstrate great respect toward the aliens by authentically offering friendship and a desire to learn more about their culture.

In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a lonely middle school boy named Elliott makes contact with an extraterrestrial, fondly dubbed as E.T. who is accidentally left stranded on Earth. Elliott becomes friends with the creature and helps E.T. create a device that will contact his mother ship or in the words of the extraterrestrial: “E.T. phoneeee homeeeee.” Elliott, in an attempt to reunite E.T. with his family without getting caught by his mom or the government, learns about his own self-worth and the important role he plays in his family. Similar to the hemorrhaging woman, Elliott—who suffers from loneliness as a result of his parent’s ugly divorce—literally reaches out to a more powerful being than he to be healed with love.

And finally, in Super 8 (which takes much of its inspiration from Close Encounters and E.T.) 13-year-old Joe Lamb, a quiet daydreamer, is making a zombie film with his buddies when a catastrophic train wreck occurs, releasing top-secret cargo—a supernatural creature that has been held in government captivity and mistreated for decades. Joe—who lost his mother in a mill accident months prior to this event and who has a strained relationship with his bitter father Deputy Jackson Lamb—eventually learns the meaning of compassion and redemption as he (and his father) confront the strange being who has been stealing energy sources and kidnapping townsfolk for much of the movie. As one film reviewer noted: “Director J.J. Abrams uses a Spielberg-ian element of an alien visitor to intercede for Joe and Deputy Lamb. The father and son don’t fix their own problems. They don’t save themselves. It takes something supernatural and miraculous to rescue and redeem them. When speaking of this spiritual experience, a renewed Joe boldly proclaims, ‘I believe,’ reiterating the importance of faith in a higher power or being.”

Our hearts and imaginations are often captivated by these types of stories (found in the movies, the Bible, history books and daily life) because they themselves are signals that lead us to the signal that is Jesus—incredible signs that point us toward the signal that is God-in-the-flesh.  “Searching for the Signal” is ultimately about coming into human contact with a mysterious, supernatural, powerful, compassionate and merciful God who at the same time chooses us, flawed human beings, to be signals of that same love for one another.

So whether you leave a lucrative career to work at a non-profit that gives aide to the poor or whether you volunteer at the Duluth Co-Op or provide a meal for the men at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries or serve as a church school teacher for third graders or go on a mission trip to Haiti or teach English to a refugee family…you are searching for and following God’s signal.

May we all continue to search and find God’s signal, may we receive it and may we all pass it on.

Amen.