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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Waiting to Love

Salvador Dali's Crucifixion

As I sat in the church pew during the Good Friday Tennebrae Service last evening listening to readings from Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, mock trial, torture and crucifixion , my mind recalled the account of Jesus’ death in Matthew 27:45-53:

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[c] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[d47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” 50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Upon remembering the prophetic and poetic earth-shattering event that Matthew describes, I suddenly realized the significance of Earth Day and Good Friday’s being recognized (for the first time) on the same date.  In all honesty, it would be appropriate if Earth Day was held every year on Good Friday. What better way to celebrate the gift of God’s creation and commit to being good stewards of the Earth and making a better world for generations to come…than on the very day in which Jesus’ crucifixion shakes a world corrupted by violent systems of power, greed, corruption, oppression and death; raises the dead to life and transforms the world into something new–a place of redemption, healing and love for all!

It’s clearer to me now than ever before that resurrection begins on the cross. But in this Dead or Holy Saturday, resurrection is not fully realized. To be accurate, it’s not completely realized on Easter morning either, although we do have a more profound awareness that faith is alive, hope is coming and love cannot be defeated by any amount of evil and darkness.

As singer-songwriter Brent Dennen sings, there ain’t no reason things are this way…but love will set us free:

Resurrection and redemption is (in good ole Reformed Presbyterian speak) already here/not yet. God’s love has conquered death but we are much too limited in our our linear view and living of time to see the complete affect of that love.  Yet we know we are headed toward new living in a world that is filled with nothing but love.  In the meantime we have to wait for that day–actively wait. Ponder. Discern. Question. Lament. Stir. It is then that we begin to see a little bit more and a little bit more (like the light at the end of a dark tunnel) glimpses of God’s love that we are destined for and are called to embody in the here and now.

This idea too became much more transparent to me last night after the Good Friday Service as Elizabeth and I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (just released on DVD during this Holy Week, which is intriguing considering the entire Harry Potter story and its religious symbolism and references as well as JK Rowling’s Christian faith and membership in the Church of Scotland).

Although we were moved by the film when we first watched it at the local theater, the scenes in which Harry, Hermione and Ron are actively waiting for a solution to their predicament (a little faith, hope, love and light in the darkness if you will) took on more power considering the context of this weekend observance for Christians.

And while there is much pain and anguish in the final two parts of Harry Potter’s story (the film version of The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 opens this summer), we know that Voldermort and the Death Eaters will not win, even when Harry receives killing curse from the Elder wand V steals from Dumbledore’s grave.

Resurrection, you see, is beginning. Destruction is always an end.

The same couldn’t be any more truer than last evening’s episode of the J.J. Abrams sci-fi adventure Fringe, “6:03 AM”, which was appropriately timed for Good Friday

Walter Bishop holds a sign in the Fringe Season 2 episode "White Tulip"

This will likely only make sense to those who are Fringies but there was a powerful scene in which Walter Bishop (played superbly by John Noble) has a “Mount of Olives/Garden of Gethsemane” moment. To give a bit of background for non-Fringe viewers, Walter goes into a chapel to pray at the hospital where his son Peter is in ICU (gravely injured by a machine designed to destroy our world or an alternate universe eerily similar to ours).  Walter, a brilliant scientist and humble bumbler, is filled with enormous guilt for a series of choices he made that has resulted in a war between both worlds that could result in the destruction of our own:

“I ask you for a sign, and you send it to me. It was a white tulip. I was so grateful. Since then, in moments of deep despair, I have found solace in believing that you have forgiven me. I was willing to let it go. I was willing to let Peter die. I changed. That should matter. God, I know my crimes are unforgivable. Punish me. Do what you want to me, but I beg you, spare our world.”

Pain, anguish and even death of beloved characters on Fringe is inevitable…but if you know Fringe or it’s creators (the same folks who brought the world LOST, wink, wink, nudge, nudge) or reflect on the greatest epic literary stories of our time (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) as well as those in history (Alice Paul, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu)Destruction won’t be the end.

Resurrection is just beginning.

Love is waiting to happen.

Michael D. O'Brien's Jesus Laid in the Tomb

Waiting

A Sermon for Sunday November 28, 2010; The First Sunday of Advent, Romans 8:18-24 and Luke 1:8-23, 57-66

I was driving along I-20 East, just outside my hometown of Birmingham. The skies were a bright blue and the sun was shining brightly on that Monday afternoon in August 2003 as I traveled down the road, filled with joy and excitement. I was feeling good about the summer internship experience I had just completed at a Presbyterian church in Florida and looking forward to returning to Columbia Seminary in Decatur to spend time with Elizabeth and other school friends.

But then my phone rang. A close peer and church friend from my youth group days called to tell me that another dear friend of ours was on death’s bed. “Kathy was in an accident last night,” said Rachel, her voice trembling with each word. “Her car overturned into a creek and by the time paramedics arrived, she had already suffered significant brain damage due to being underwater for so long. She’s unconscious and on life support now. The doctors say that Kathy only has a few hours left.”

I told Rachel I would be there as soon as I could and after hanging up the phone, I pulled off at the next exit.  Heading back on I-20 West toward UAB Hospital in downtown Birmingham, my joy and excitement instantly turned into sorrow and worry.  I called Elizabeth and left her a voicemail, telling her the news about Kathy, and that I wouldn’t be returning to Columbia that day. And then I phoned the associate pastor who supervised me during my internship. Nancy expressed condolences and offered up a powerful and comforting prayer as I navigated the busy downtown streets to find a parking spot near the hospital.

Within a few minutes, I had parked the car and was walking briskly toward the hospital. I was expecting to go directly inside where someone at the front desk would quickly direct me to Kathy’s room so I could see her and say goodbye before time ran out. But reality—which is not as dramatic and sensational as I pictured it to be—soon set in as I approached the entrance of the hospital and saw several old friends from youth group, including beloved advisers and pastors, gathered on the front steps, waiting for a life to end.  A familiar knot twisted tightly in my stomach as I joined them, ever so reluctantly, in the waiting.

One friend, after giving me a hug, said with tears in her eyes, “You’re in seminary, isn’t there anything you can say or do to change this?”  I didn’t know what to say so I simply shook my head, feeling the knot inside me become tighter. After my friend walked away to comfort another, one of my pastors and mentors said to me, “Folks always expect to minister to fix things but there’s nothing we can do but wait.”

So we waited…and waited… and waited.  For 90 minutes that seemed like an eternity, we waited till the family came outside and told us that Kathy died. But although Kathy’s death had come, our waiting continued. Only this time, instead of waiting for death, we began waiting for our emotional wounds to heal in the week leading up to her funeral and beyond.

And the waiting, says rock legend Tom Petty is the hardest part—“Every day you get one more yard/You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.” [1]Many of you in this congregation know first-hand about the difficulty of waiting—

waiting for scans, chemotherapy treatment and test results

waiting for a new job that will help you turn on the lights and heat

waiting for a broken relationship to be healed and reconciled

waiting for a child to return from a war-torn country

waiting for a friend to get better from their illness

waiting for a relative to die peacefully and without suffering

waiting for the grief over a loved one’s death to subside

I confess that I don’t care much for the waiting precisely because it’s difficult, especially as a minister, feeling so uneasy and helpless when others are suffering.

I could only wait on a stool in a hospital room in Maryland (in the church where I previously served), and stare at the slowly-tumbling vital signs on a monitor as a mother of two teenage boys died of cancer.

I could only wait at my office desk here in Duluth and gawk at a Facebook page that said a young man had committed suicide or an email that said a teen has run away from home and cut off ties with family, school and church.

I could only wait in the back of a pick-up truck in Haiti and gape as a boy with a traumatic head injury was carried through a crowd of people waiting in line to see a doctor at a makeshift Red Cross clinic.

I could only wait on the edge of the bed and gaze at my wife as she tearfully shared how it’s unfair that her father is gradually losing his 3-year-fight with cancer.

I could only wait on my living room couch and read a news reports about a plane crash in Pakistan or deadly gang violence in Brazil.

I could do nothing to fix any of those situations, which only made me more anxious, frustrated and angry at having to wait.

At the very least, I should be able to come up with insightful questions that instantly give me the answers I need to make sense out of all the suffering that occurs in the world.  There are folks outside this sanctuary who are waiting for me, a minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), to speak profound words of wisdom that will soothe their anguish. But like the priest Zechariah, I am usually struck with silence, incapable of saying (much less doing) anything that will magically take away the pain and grief.

Even fictional characters gifted with magic, like Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in the book and new film version of The Deathly Hallows, can’t waive a wand to make their troubles disappear.  Despite their extraordinary powers, these heroic teenage wizards—in the middle of their difficult and harrowing journey to stop the evil Lord Voldermort—hit some unexpected snags and are soon forced to hide out in a tent in the forest and wait…for two weeks doing absolutely nothing.  [2]

Their frustration at not being able to immediately fix their situation or plot out the next steps to successfully defeat Voldermort stirs up their anxiety so much that they began to get angry and distrust one another. After a heated argument that nearly comes to blows, Ron (previously injured in a nasty fight with Voldermort’s Death Eaters) storms off and doesn’t return. Harry and Hermione, however, remain in the tent…waiting.

But it is in the waiting—the thinking/questioning/pondering/wondering/remembering/discerning/healing—that Harry and Hermione find some answers, discover important truths, and have an occasional “Aha” moment that enables them to eventually move forward in their quest to defeat Voldermort.  It is in the waiting that Harry and Hermione realize that they are stronger people and friends, having persevered through a difficult and painful experience together.

Interestingly enough, the period of time in which Harry and Hermione’s waiting occurs in The Deathly Hallows is the season of Advent.  This weekend I was reminded of the powerful significance of this special celebration in the life of the Church when I picked up a copy of the newly published book Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals, and read the comments on Advent. The authors write the following:

Advent, meaning “the coming” is a time when we wait expectantly. Christians begin to celebrate it as a season during the fourth and fifth centuries. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done. And we wait in expectation of the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ, what God will yet do. But this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As any expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise, nutrition, care, prayer, work; and birth involves pain, blood, tears, release, community. It is called labor for a reason. Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry, pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world.[3]

This note on Advent is reflected in Paul’s letter to the early Church in Rome where Jews and Christians are being violently persecuted by the Roman Empire and waiting expectantly for hope in God’s kingdom—another world that is free of suffering and oppression. The apostle writes:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in* hope we were saved.

Paul and other followers of Jesus thought the coming of God’s kingdom would happen in their lifetime, and that their wait would be a short one. They never suspected that believers living in the 21st Century would still be waiting for God’s world to arrive.   Whether God’s kingdom comes in our time is anyone’s guess…but I am convinced that God’s kingdom is coming, and that it is our calling—especially during Advent—to actively wait for the kingdom to be fully realized.

To actively wait means that we become the Church—members of God’s covenant family who are the eyes, hands, heart and feet for all those who suffer and mourn.

To actively wait means that we as the Church prepare, exercise, nurture, care for and work on our own spiritual life as well as that of the faith community through education, conversation, fellowship, mission, prayer and worship.

To actively wait means we as the Church make Christ’s mercy known through quiet discernment and subtle acts of compassion, not quick and showy fixes nor empty words.

To actively wait means we as the Church discern how to be patient and still to see how God and God’s goodness is moving among us.

To actively wait means we as the Church call a teenager who is grieving and mourn with them; encourage a moment of reflection and prayer after a long and hard day serving the sick and poor; offer a shoulder to cry on for the parent who lost their child or for the child who lost a parent; hold tightly the hand of a loved one whose best friend is dying; and pray for God’s reign of peace for people who live millions of miles away in areas devastated by disease, poverty and violence.

To actively wait means we as the Church ponder how God—by entering our lives as a poor and defenseless child who will later suffer a horrendous death on a cross—connects us to one another through difficult and painful experiences; joins us together in our humanity and our love for God and neighbor; brings our hearts closer to the Redeemer of the whole creation.

Amen.


[1] Tom Petty “The Waiting” from the 1981 album  Hard Promises

[2] Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, 2008. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 1, directed by David Yates, November 19, 2010.

[3] Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, John Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, Nov. 16, 2010.