Not From This World

A Sermon for November 25, 2018, Christ The King Sunday

As the editor and writer of Marvel Comics from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Stan Lee published a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox” which appeared on the last page of the company’s various superhero titles.

Upon his death at the age of 95 on November 12, one of the columns that the legendary creator wrote 50 years ago immediately resurfaced on social media. Published in December 1968, the essay addressed racism in America in the wake of the horrific assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy that occurred earlier that year. The co-creator of iconic characters such as Spider-man, The Black Panther and The Avengers, wrote the following:

Stan Lee with actor Chadwick Boseman who plays T’Challa/Black Panther at the movie’s premiere in January, 2018

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.

The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. …He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another.

But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.

Peace and Justice,

Stan

Stan Lee’s words remain relevant today and are reflected in the moral and spiritual messages he weaved into the realistic fantasy superhero universe he helped create at Marvel Comics. Lee also adhered to the principals of love and tolerance in his own life, which is partly what made him such a beloved pop icon.

Despite being agnostic and non-religious, Lee had a great appreciation for the Golden Rule and the power of sacrificial love. As such, he imbued his super heroes with a sense of humility and compassion, and he exposed them to real life issues that would challenge their humanity. The previously mentioned characters and many more, like Iron Man and the Hulk, are flawed super heroes. For decades they’ve struggled with the challenges of everyday life just like the average person: job stress, addiction, depression, fear, prejudice, poverty, war, religious discrimination, illness and death, disabilities, and family relationships. And their powers don’t always save them from their troubles.

But Lee also believed that regardless of one’s flaws, human beings could do extraordinary things to help fashion a better world, which was evident in his super hero stories but also explicitly stated in another Soapbox column from 1968:

“We (at Marvel) believe that (humans) have a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility—the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect…We’ll never rest until it becomes a fact rather than just a cherished dream.”

Considering all of this, the case could be made that Stan Lee likely comprehended (more than many Christians) the theological concept that Christ or God’s kingdom is not from this world, and humanity is called to be a part of this alternative reality.

A certain amount of imagination and faith is needed to conceive a world that is unlike the one we inhabit. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor of Judea, doesn’t have that imagination and faith, which is why he remains stuck in a rudimentary understanding of kings and kingships. Pilate is unable to grasp the idea of a kingdom and world apart from the one he knows. And he is incapable of seeing Jesus as one who belongs to an entity more sovereign than Rome.

Pilate suspects, as does King Herod and the religious authorities, that Jesus is a threat to the power and prestige each of them hold. Pilate is trying to determine if Jesus is claiming to be the king of Israel, the Jewish nation and therefore challenging the authority of Roman Emperor. Pilate views Jesus’ action as a potential global security threat to the Empire.

Jesus’ kingdom, though, is not defined in earthly terms nor is it some heavenly, abstract concept. According to the scriptures and the culture of the time, the kingdom of God is considered an authentic world that is within and beyond our own:  a kingdom that has already arrived; a kingdom that is fully in the present, and a kingdom that will one day bring forth a new heaven and earth.  And it is a kingdom where all belong and are invited to be part of the community of an unconditionally loving God, whose reign transcends any one person or group of people.

I realize this may sound like a Utopian fantasy—a fanciful, pie-in-the sky dreaming that is more suitable for kids who read comic books or watch movies about wizards. Yet it is the foundation of our faith and why we as Presbyterians join Christians around the globe in recognizing today as Christ the King Sunday. As it is stated on the website of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

“The festival of Christ the King…moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. … In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. … As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.”

Jesus never has and never will fit into humanity’s centuries old traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, leadership, power and prestige. Jesus wasn’t a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time, and Jesus is not like any crowned figurehead, dictator or elected leader that has existed in the modern era.

Google Images

Pilate mistakenly identifies him as a meddlesome king, even going so far as to asking Jesus, “What is truth?” when the truth of who Jesus is stands plainly before him. Pilate simply can’t comprehend much less handle the truth, which is that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our lives now and forever.

Jesus is the ruler of a kingdom where God’s love, peace, justice, healing and restoration are experienced. Jesus—this God-in-the-flesh who faces interrogation by a representative of a dominating system of violence and power—is the ruler who enters our world as a small, defenseless child instead of a power-hungry deity seeking to wipe out sinners and rule with an iron fist.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says to an ignorant Pilate.

The truth—that is God’s kingdom of love and grace—is not always easy or comforting to hear. It can be difficult because it means we’re acknowledging that we haven’t quite lived into the reality of God’s kingdom and have remained tethered to an earthly realm (a broken society and culture) that fosters greed, resentment, prejudice and hate. It means that sometimes we’ve become stuck in our own self-serving agendas and rejected Christ’s verbal invitation to be a part of God’s beloved community.

One of my all-time favorite television shows, M*A*S*H, about the 4077th mobile surgical hospital unit stationed near the frontlines of the Korean War, helped me better appreciate the truth of Jesus’ kingship in an episode entitled, Quo Vadis, (Where Are You Going), Captain Chandler?

The episode begins with batch of soldiers being brought into the camp to be treated for the injuries they sustained in battle. Among them is Captain Arnold Chandler, a sheep rancher from Idaho, who believes he is Jesus Christ.

Some at the 4077th think Captain Chandler’s claim is blasphemous and that he is faking battle fatigue to earn a medical discharge. Others are concerned about the man’s mental well-being, and contact the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, for a consultation.

It turns out that Chandler, a decorated pilot who had flown 57 missions before being shot down, has lost his memories even though his head wound is superficial. Despite best efforts to help him remember, Chandler insists he is Christ. After a long visit with his patient, Sidney shares a diagnosis with camp personnel. He tells them:

“He’s not Christ. But he’s not Chandler either. The man is a victim. Chandler lost himself. He’s not playing a game. He spent two years dropping bombs on people who never did anything to him until finally something inside this kid from Idaho said, ‘Enough! You’re Christ, you’re not a killer. The next bomb you drop, you drop on yourself.’”

M*A*S*H, Season 4, Episode 10: “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” (1975)

Sidney then recommends that the pilot be admitted to a hospital in Tokyo where he can receive treatment that will turn him back to his former self but “never into a fighting machine.” A few moments later, in the episode’s final scene, Captain Arnold Chandler is walking out of the medical tent to board a bus to the airport when Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reiley, the young, naïve company clerk approaches him. Radar timidly says to Captain Chandler:

“Sir, my name is Radar O’Reiley. … Um, sir are you really who they say, I mean are you really Him?”

Chandler replies: “Yes, I am.”

Radar breathes a sigh of relief and then asks: “I know you’re busy and all but could you bless this?”

Radar then reaches into a satchel and draws out a ragged old teddy bear that he’s loved since childhood. “I know he’s not real, but we’re very close.”

Captain Chandler blesses Radar’s teddy bear

Chandler places his hands on the stuffed animal, his right hand covering the teddy’s bear’s missing eye, and says: “Bless you.”

Then he looks up at Radar and says, “Bless you, Radar.” 

Moved and humbled by the gesture, Radar says proudly, “I’m Walter.”

Chandler replies: “Bless you, Walter.” And then as he boards the bus, he looks at everyone in the camp and says, “Bless all of you.”

I first shared this illustration in a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Church in Maryland on Christ the King Sunday, 2006. While preparing that sermon, I tracked down the episode’s writer, Bert Prelutsky, and sent him an email asking for more insight on the story of Captain Arnold Chandler. Bert emailed me back the next day, saying:

“I think the message was fairly simple and straightforward. We all share a common humanity, whatever our religion is… Chandler, of course, represented the Christ, the spark of the divine, that resides in most of us.”

There is, of course, a lot about God and God’s kingdom that is mysterious and astonishing. But maybe it’s not so strange to consider that we’ve each been blessed with a spark of the Divine, the captivating love of God

Maybe it’s not too far fetched to concede that when we are tuned into Christ’s voice enough so that we might follow and embrace God’s vision, which is both within and beyond our reach, we encounter a glimpse of the holy…

Mission trips to Honduras and Blue Ridge, Georgia; Bible Study and fellowship at the Duluth Co-Op; Laundry Love; Operation Turkey Sandwich, Clifton Men’s Shelter; Rainbow Village, Blood Drives; Mental Health Awareness Workshops for Parents and High School Youth, Free Clinical Exams for Uninsured Mammogram Patients. Vacation Bible School. Montreat, etc., etc.,

Operation Turkey Sandwich

When we come together to love others as Christ loves, we participate in a kingdom that is not from this world.

That is and will always be the truth.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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A Pastoral Prayer for 6/17/18

An acrylic painting on wood illustrating the bible verse in Mark 4 describing the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. Jesus is seated with a child under the yellow-leafed branches of a tree showing her a tiny mustard seed.

Pastoral Prayer, 10 am worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, June 17, 2018. “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much,” written by Ted Loder, author of Guerillas of Grace. 1981. Text in red are my additions.

Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken families and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying and people being torn apart from loved ones; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much stale routine and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter tastes of ashes in our mouths.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…Too much, Lord, too much, too blood, bruising, brain-washing much.

Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, or sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration?

O God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, we may also be fed and be full.

O God, make of us joyful children like those in Vacation Bible School last week who gave you praise and lived out grace through music, play, art, mission, story and the sharing of scripture.

O God, make us of us mustard seed and scatter us across the earth so that we may sprout and grow, putting forth large branches of love and mercy where your people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the foreigner can find protection, solace and comfort.

We ask all these things in the name of Christ Jesus who taught his disciples to pray together saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

 

For God So Loved

A Sermon for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Trinity Sunday, John 3:1-17

A week from today, a group of high school teens and adults will travel to North Carolina for the annual Montreat Youth Conference. One of the highlights will be gathering as a youth group each evening in our lodging space to reflect on everything we’ve experienced that day.

We’ll ask questions, share insights, and try to find meaning out of what we’re learning about life, faith and God.  It will undoubtedly be a powerful and sacred time just as it is every summer.

Many of you have probably had similar late night chats with family and friends in your home or on a retreat or mission trip—those deep and baffling, blow-your-mind talks that can illicit a variety of responses: jaw drops, puzzled looks, deep sighs, astonishment, uncontrollable laughter and teary eyes.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the religious leader Nicodemus is quite astounded by the midnight convo he is having with Jesus. It’s a peculiar exchange to be sure, and Nicodemus can’t seem to wrap his head around Jesus’ talk about “being born from above.”

Nicodemus knows intuitively, as any human being should, that it is physically impossible for someone to grow old and re-enter his or her mother’s womb and be born a second time. Thus, Jesus’ suggestion that someone can be born is mind-boggling to him.  With all the wisdom he has gained as a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus simply doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him. Emmanuel Lartey, a former seminary professor of mine writes:

“So often our misunderstandings and disputes arise because (those in dialogue) are not speaking the same language. Jesus is using symbolic, spiritual, analogical language; Nicodemus is looking at the plain, literal meanings. Nicodemus sees birth as ‘of the flesh;’ Jesus speaks of spiritual realities… Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it. Religion often becomes a matter of the correct observance of particular practices. When these practices become routine, they may actually serve to hinder spiritual sensitivity.”[1]

Put another way, Nicodemus is much like an old school Presbyterian Methodist or Episcopalian who feels comfortable wearing the well-worn “frozen chosen” label—Christians who are reserved, scholarly, and extremely organized; have a thought-out, orthodox system of beliefs; and keep strict adherence to religious doctrines. They follow the rules, check the lists, memorize the scriptures, attend church every Sunday and say their prayers every night. They’ve got faith locked down so they conclude there’s no need for spirituality.

The freewheeling Spirit, they reason, is for the doubters and unbelievers who are lost and need Jesus. The irony, though, is that the ones who seem to have it all figured out are precisely the people who need a spiritual transformation in their lives. Lartey explains further:

“To be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being. We need a transformation of our whole way of knowing and experiencing the world. When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again. Nicodemus’ confusion deepens because he is unable to leave the realm of literal thinking to join Jesus on an imaginative, spiritual level.”[2]

In other words, the triune God can’t be stuffed in a box or put in the corner. God can’t be coerced into carrying out our selfish agendas or comply to our ideological views of humanity and the world. The triune God cannot be controlled or tamed—forced to be in tune with us.

Yet for centuries, it is what Christians have tried to do in an effort to understand their relationship with God. Despite best intentions to organize religion, which resulted in the establishment of communities of faith like churches and denominations; sacred practices like baptism and communion; and the structuring of ministries like Christian Education, youth, pastoral care and mission, there have also been unintended consequences.

In the book The Great Spiritual Migration, which a group of Pleasant Hill members and I recently explored, author and pastor Brian McLaren points out that the ancient tradition of Christian institutions protecting a timeless, correct set of beliefs has caused much calamity:  colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, physical and sexual abuse, power grabs, financial scams and environmental destruction.

Over the last few decades, Christianity and the Church have become hypocritical, judgmental, manipulative and irrelevant in the eyes of many across the globe. And the numerical declines that are occurring throughout every area of Christianity in the West, particularly among younger generations, bear the reality. McLaren writes:

“The pattern is predictable. Founders are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the religions that ostensibly carry on their work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others as their founders did, they hoard power. Instead of defying tradition and unleashing moral imagination as their founders did, they impose tradition and refuse to think outside the lines. …No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out.”[3]

Now, I will be the first to say that I am grateful to be serving in a church that is not constricted, change-averse, over-nostalgic, and fearful, etc. Pleasant Hill Presbyterian creates and imagines outside the lines; greets the world with open arms and generous hearts; and empowers people to do ministry.

But if we were to be honest in those late evening conversations we have with others and even ourselves, we’d have to admit that things are not the same here as they were 10 years ago or 30 years ago. Like many churches, Pleasant Hill’s pews get emptier and emptier and it has a little less energy than it used to have. I don’t know exactly why. It just is.

Maybe it’s a reflection of some of the emptiness and lack of energy many Christians feel in the world these days—a world that seems to have become meaner and more hateful and destructive. The mistreatment of our neighbors, the brokenness of lives, the horrors of violence and the heaviness of death is draining, especially when we are glued to our screens 24-7.

Christianity has sadly become too settled in its ways, too comfortable, too tired and apathetic. Christianity needs spiritual transformation and inspiration. It begins when Christians and churches let go of long-held systems of belief and arguments over sexual orientation, salvation, worship styles, money and carpet colors. And allow instead for the Spirit to carry them out of their comfort zones and in the way of love.

Christianity’s purpose is to be in constant motion. Our relationship with God can only thrive if we are moving, growing and changing. Our call to serve can only be fruitful if we are stretching ourselves to love our neighbors (including strangers and enemies). Our ability to see the kingdom of God will only materialize if we are willing to go and teach others how to love.

For God so loved that the Spirit sent a perfect loving Messiah into the world because of the Creator’s love for humanity. For God so loved that the Spirit transforms us through the love of Christ and sends us out to live our whole lives in love. For God so loved that the Spirit opens our hearts to love others as God loves us.

As the late Presbyterian minister and beloved children’s TV icon, Mr. Rogers, once said:  “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”[4]

 

Rogers also had this gem:  “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”[5]

Love is powerful. Love changed the world and can continue to change the world. We heard that reminder last weekend from Bishop Michael Bruce Curry at the royal wedding in Britain. In his sermon, Curry asked everyone to imagine a world where love is the way:

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way—unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. …

 When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. …When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.[6]

If you’re doubtful some days that the Spirit is unable to move people toward the way of Christ’s love, consider this story from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama about a 4-year-old boy named Austin Perine:[7]

Donning a bright red cape and a bold blue shirt emblazoned with the message “#SHOW LOVE,” and assistance from his incredible side-kick dad TJ, the heroic Austin hands out meals to the city’s homeless on a weekly basis.  Austin says his superhero motto is “show love,” because “it means you care about someone no matter what they look like.” One homeless man told Austin: “It’s because of you that I want to be a better person.”

Austin’s mission started when his dad took him to a city shelter to learn about homelessness. TJ said that his son immediately asked if they could feed the people at the shelter. “I didn’t expect to feed homeless people that day. But when a 4-year-old boy asks you, what can you say?” They immediately went to Burger King, bought chicken sandwiches’ and took them back to the shelter. Word quickly spread and Austin became a local celebrity overnight, appearing on TV, news articles and social media posts. Burger King gave him a $1,000 monthly allowance for a year so he could continue his mission.

This is what love looks like when we let the Spirit take hold of us. The Spirit blows through our lives where it chooses and we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So let us be open and ready to go wherever it takes us to show love to others.

For God so loved.

For God so loved.

Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (2008)

[3] The Great Spiritual Migratio: How The World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking A Better Way to Be Christian by Brian McLaren, (2016)

[4] http://www.newsweek.com/fred-rogers-birthday-quotes-wont-you-be-my-neighbor-movie-854013

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/518360-i-believe-that-appreciation-is-a-holy-thing–that-when-we

[6] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love

[7] https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/iyw-boy-helps-homeless-trnd/index.html

Take These Things

A Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018. John 2:13-22, Third Sunday of Lent

While I was doing some online research for today’s sermon, I discovered the following meme, which offers some sage advice:

The caption is funny precisely because many Christians forget or ignore that Jesus sometimes got mad during his life and ministry.  Nobody wants to see and talk about angry Jesus, especially that time he made his own whip out of cords and drove the merchants and money changers and livestock out of the temple before dumping coins on the floor and overturning tables.

Instead, we’d much prefer this image of Jesus clearing the temple by cartoonist and pastor Cuyler Black:

While the cartoon is a humorous interpretation and play-on-words for a 21st century culture that is familiar with extreme sports terminology, what Jesus actually does is far more risky and dangerous than a skateboarding stunt.  Therefore, it is crucial that we take a hard look at images that attempt to portray exactly what is occurring in the text as well as the story itself:

Jesus is furious and causing a scene. The inside of the temple is a mess. Dove are flying out of cages, sheep are fussing and running around in circles. Coins are spinning through the air and across the floor. People are scrambling to get out of the way. Merchants stumble over one another while others shake their fists at Jesus or grab him by the sleeve to make him stop. Jesus is livid as he swings a whip of cords in one hand and picks up tables with the other, all while shouting: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The Gospel of John puts the event front and center, right near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The temple visit marks Jesus’ first public appearance, immediately following the calling of the disciples and the private wedding at Cana where water is turned into wine. The writer of John’s gospel wants readers to know right away that the outraged Jesus in the temple is the one he described in the first chapter as the Word who is God—the light in the darkness that shall not be overcome, the Word that became flesh and dwells with humanity, the Word that is full of grace and truth.

On the surface, it may seem as if Jesus’ outrage is not congruent with John’s description of God in Christ or what we know of Jesus from other gospel stories. The idea of Jesus being angry and causing a ruckus in the temple of all places is hard to imagine. It’s not a scene that sits comfortably next to accounts of Jesus’ healing, feeding and caring for the marginalized of society. The whip-holding, table-flipping Jesus sure doesn’t seem like the type who would want children to come and sit in his lap. But Jesus’ anger is an important part of who he is and not something that should be easily dismissed.

Over the centuries, Christians have mistakenly domesticated Jesus in their own image and have come to see him as this gentle, nice, serene person who is always smiling and giving a pat on the back. And believers have, at times, overlooked the fact that Jesus and God are connected.

Christ is God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Everything we know of God as the almighty creator of the universe and sovereign lord of the heavens and earth is manifested in the bodily flesh that is Jesus; unfathomable power and an incredible, mysterious force of logic and love embodied in a single person. It’s truly quite astonishing, and seems reasonable then to conclude that such an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being in human form is not going to be nice all the time. The late Christian author and theologian Mike Yaconelli once put it this way:

What characterized Jesus and His disciples was unpredictability. Jesus was always surprising the disciples by eating at the wrong houses (those of sinners), hanging around the wrong people (tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes, lepers), and healing people on the wrong day (the Sabbath) … Jesus was a long way from dullJesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. …If Jesus is the Son of God, we should be terrified of what He will do when He gets his Hands on our lives.”[1]

(The triune) God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. God is our great strength and comfort. And Jesus, God-with-us, is the bread of life, the true vine, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd and the resurrection. But neither God nor God in Christ is safe or tame or nice.

The anger that erupts from Jesus upon entering the temple, though, is not irrational or petty. Jesus is not throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way or upset because he’s hungry and cranky. Whenever Jesus became angry, it was because he saw injustice and irreverence.

Now, the selling of animals and exchanging of money was necessary for the festivals occurring in the temple during Passover. People traveling from long distances would need sheep and doves to make burnt offerings and those who came from foreign lands would need to exchange their money for the local currency to purchase the animals.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have issue with this economic practice; otherwise he’d be ranting through the outdoor marketplaces in every town.

The problem Jesus seemed to have is that these transactions were taking place in the temple—a place intentionally set aside to worship God. What Jesus witnessed was a lack of respect and reverence for God on display. Practices that weren’t harmful in of themselves, but distracted people from giving their entire attention to God. And thus, Jesus was consumed by righteous anger.

Righteous anger is considered to be good, conscientious, moral, healthy anger and there’s always a time and place for such emotion. Alice Pau, the American suffragist, was angry that women were denied the right to vote. The civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was angry about racial segregation. And peace activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was angry at apartheid in South Africa. In our daily lives, it is normal to feel righteous anger about bullying, abuse, poverty, racial inequality, and so much more. God has wired us to show deep compassion and care for the broken and suffering in this world; it’s only natural that we become angry when we read the news headlines and see yet another act of violence and oppression. Righteous anger is good and we are called to practice it and be an instrument of change.

With that in mind, it is very tempting to preach and read today’s story as if we’re only called, like Jesus, to deliver righteous anger by taking up a whip and overturning the tables of the injustices we most despise. However, the writer of a biblical commentary I read last week reminded me that the writer of John’s gospel has something else in mind:

“The text pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. Surely we can be honest enough to acknowledge that often enough we put ourselves and our institutions at the service of the powers that are decidedly less than God.”[2]

It would be naive for us to read this text and believe that Jesus is only criticizing everyone but us good Christians and our places of worship. As the biblical commentator notes further:

“For the truth is that neither the prophetic impulse nor the institutions called to embody it are well served by the quick assumption that because he is ‘our’ Savior, he is perpetually well pleased with us. It is important for us to tolerate and explore…the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgment of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even against us.”[3]

In other words, we are not perfect followers and we don’t have this whole faith thing figured out. We make mistakes. We turn our back on God and neighbor.  It’s what we confess together every Sunday and frankly, we need Jesus to call us out when we’re wrong. We need tough love that speaks truth to our waywardness. Jesus’ righteous anger comes from a deep place of love for humanity.

So, if Jesus were to enter our sanctuaries, what might he rail against? What are the distractions and displays of disrespect and irreverence that would cause him to yell aloud with righteous anger: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house something else” What tough love speech would Jesus give?

Would Jesus be angry that worship spaces designed for the purpose of communing with God have evolved into a place where folks primarily come to socialize with and be entertained by others?

Would Jesus be angry with people who play games, text and check emails on our smart phones during any part of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with people who clap and cheer after a musician gives glory to God through a special anthem because they were thoroughly entertained, not because they are praising God for the gift of music? Or would Jesus be angry with some who allow a negative attitude about a hymn prevent them from finding joy and meaning in other parts of worship?

Would Jesus be angry with those who make grocery lists on the back of their bulletins and pretend to listen? Or with others who are so focused on every aspect of worship being flawless that they miss the chance to be surprised by the mystery of grace?

Would Jesus be angry with people who set up metaphorical tables covered with misplaced allegiances, religious presumptions and judgments, smug self-satisfaction, arrogance, envy, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, and political idols? [4]

Would Jesus be angry with those who worry more about the empty pews than being delighted by the people who have come to praise God? Or with the many who claim to be friendly and welcoming and yet never take the time after worship to know the people who sit on the other side of the room?

Would Jesus be angry with the people who pray for the well-being of others, but don’t always work to ensure their well-being?

Would Jesus be angry with pastors and leaders of the church for focusing too much attention on the maintenance of the institution—the upkeep of the building, the budget, the stewardship campaign, new equipment—instead of the practices of faith? [5]

These are the questions we must ask in this season of Lent in which each of us are called to look inward and discern how we have let certain things get in the way of our relationship with God.

I don’t know for sure what Jesus would specifically be angry about if he were to walk through the doors of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian’s sanctuary or any sanctuary. I don’t have the answers.

But I do know this: Jesus’ deep desire for a sacred space where people can worship and experience the holy is what leads to his death at the hands of the religious authorities who were greatly offended by Jesus’ outrage. As a seminary classmate and friend wrote recently on this text:

“’It is zeal for your house that will consume me’ reveals itself to be a prediction that the very ones who are most zealous for the Temple are the ones that will ultimately destroy Jesus. Those who have the greatest investment in the success of official religion will chew Jesus up and spit him out. You see, establishment religion cannot abide Jesus, who is the world-shaking intrusion of God’s free and radical love into the world.”[6]

Let us heed then the words of Christ who will flip the world over and scatter all the distractions that compete for our time and attention so we may be fully immersed in God’s presence; so that we may give our whole hearts to God.

Let us also take the things that turn us away from God and remove them from our midst. The things are not what matters in this life or the next. All that ever matters on this journey with Jesus is Christ himself, and his radical love that rises from the ruins, binding us forever to God and one another.

Amen.

[1] Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli, 2003, Navpress

[2] Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, 2008, Westminster Knox Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060313JJ.shtml

[5] https://robertwilliamsonjr.com/overturning-established-religion-john-213-22/.

[6] Ibid.

It’s About Surrender

A Sermon for the 7 pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service, December 24, 2017; Luke 2: 1-20 and Matthew 2:7-12

Intro: 

This evening’s sermon is unconventional for a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Rather than taking the traditional approach of doing character studies on each of the key figures in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—the angels, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary—I’ve decided to explore this extraordinary event through the lens of a short animated Christmas special—Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story That Time Forgot.

Several of you may already be thinking that a cartoon illustration is better suited for young kids and their parents during the earlier Children’s Service and not serious enough for a service in which youth and adults come to profoundly reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

However, I can assure you there is as much spiritual substance and depth to be found in this Toy Story tale as there is in the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas specials. More than 50 years later, millions of people still gather with their families in front of their TV screens to watch Charlie Brown and the Grinch because it speaks powerfully to them, even though they are long past childhood themselves.

The elation that we discover again and again through the viewing of our favorite Christmas specials and movies (along with other holiday preparations) is reflective of the Christmas story itself. At the center of Christmas is the birth of the child who will turn the world upside down. A momentous occasion that brings forth great joy to the child that dwells inside each of our hearts and reminds us all that we are called to live as children of God.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable to you. May our entire selves be open to your wonders like a child on Christmas morning, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, unto whom we surrender.

Sermon

If you’ve ever seen a Disney-Pixar film in the last 10 years, you are well aware that while these movies are, on the surface, made and marketed to appeal to children, they contain timely messages intended to grab the attention of adults.

Popular offerings like Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Coco offer keen insights on life and relationships as it relates to the themes of fear, doubt, loss, hope, mercy, redemption, purpose, vocation, friendship, and love.  And Toy Story That Time Forgot, which first aired in December 2014, is no different.

It’s two days after Christmas and Trixie the blue triceratops is depressed that 6-year-old Bonnie never plays with her like a dinosaur—resigned instead to the roles of goblin fairy, ice cream customer and baby reindeer. The part of prehistoric beast is given to an adorable new Christmas tree ornament named Angel Kitty who only speaks words of Christmas-related wisdom, which sounds cryptic to the other toys.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say: “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie just rolls her eyes and the other toys give the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s sayings.

Later, Bonnie takes Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Rex the anxious T-Rex to her friend Mason’s house for a play date. When they get there, Bonnie sees Mason playing a virtual reality video game. Rex, lamenting that he has such short T-Rex arms, shouts: “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas! Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

After Bonnie tosses her belongings into her friend’s playroom, the toys discover that Mason received the complete toy line of battling reptilian-dinosaurs for Christmas. Known as Battlesaurs, these fierce creatures are led by the brave Reptillus Maximus and the devious Cleric. Reptillus then takes Rex and Trixie to get new armor and tech, while, unbeknownst to them, the Cleric orders some other Battlesaurs to take Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty hostage.

Soon, Trixie and Reptillus begin developing romantic feelings. Trixie is admirative of the Battlesaurs, while Reptillus is intrigued by her world. During a conversation atop Reptillus’ lair, Trixie tells the warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.” Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, Trixie and Reptillus enter the “Arena of Woe”, where Trixie is horrified to see Reptillus attack Mason’s toys in a gladiatorial combat setting. Soon Woody and Buzz enter the ring. Woody warns Trixie that Mason has never played with the Battlesaurs and that they don’t even know they’re toys. Reptillus  battles both Woody and Buzz till Trixie demands he stop. The Cleric deems Trixie an enemy after seeing she has Bonnie’s name on her hand. Trixie escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention and the Cleric orders Reptillus to stop her. As Reptillus chases Trixie, he is shocked to discover the box he came in.

Back at the Battlesaurs play-set, Woody and Buzz realize that the Cleric is the only Battlesaur who knows they’re all toys and is determined to make sure the others don’t find out so he can be their ruler. The Cleric then forces Rex to dispose of Woody and Buzz in a ventilation fan that would shred them.

Woody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas, which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget: “The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power cord, hoping to turn it off and direct Bonnie’s focus to the playroom.

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of the holiday by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel. Or when the Whos in Whoville sing proudly about welcoming the light of Christmas, in spite of the Grinch’s theft of all their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur theme and also a cheesy 70s show called Land of the Lost where a family is thrown back in time and trapped in the pre-historic era. But for me, this Christmas special also seems to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times occasionally forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season: the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us—the Christ child born in the straw poverty of a manger.

This 22-minute animated film, particularly the focus on the theme of surrender, reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage. For this is a play in which each spectator has a part to play, and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be? Worshipful shepherds bending the knee, or kings bringing gifts? What is being enacted when Mary becomes the mother of God, when God enters the world in a lowly manger? We cannot come to this manger in the same way that we would approach the cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ’s manger.Each of us will have been judged or redeemed before we go away. Each of us will either break down, or come to know that God’s mercy is turned toward us.

What does it mean to say such things about the Christ child?…It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who becomes so small here, comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child. 

So, as we come so near to Christmas, what does it look like for each of us to open our hearts, free ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, give joy to others, and be grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God, to whom we forever belong, chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we let go and fall into the hands of our Divine Creator and allow ourselves to be a part of God’s amazing story, God’s glorious play and God’s unique imagination?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest and give our hearts to the Christ child, to Emmanuel who saves humanity from impending doom and transforms the world with unconditional love and grace?

What does it look like in this Christmas season and the coming New Year, in the silent night and the approaching light of a new day if we take a moment to pause and breathe?

What does it look like if we surrender?

Amen.


References:

Toy Story That Time Forgot, Dec. 2, 2014. Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Television Animation and Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Written and Directed by Steve Purcell and produced by Galyn Susan. Music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ausburg Fortress Publishers, 2005

The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

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.