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.

Called Out, Part Two: Confronting Evil

 A Sermon for January 29, 2012, Mark 1:21-28

Note: In between the scripture reading and the sermon, the following movie clip from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001) was shown:

 

Thomas Blanton Jr., 2000, Google Images

When I was 24-years-old, I saw the face of a man once so consumed by evil that he bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls.

A short, stocky, soft-spoken 62-year-old man—sporting thinning hair and wrinkles around tired eyes—Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. had trouble opening up a wrapped piece of peppermint candy when I interviewed him in his lawyer’s office on a hot afternoon in August of 2000.  For nearly 37 years, Blanton had dodged formal charges but remained a primes suspect in the bombing that caused the deaths of Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11 on September 15, 1963. The girls were in the bathroom of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, putting on their robes, when their lives were abruptly ended by a horrendous act of hate and violence on that Sunday morning before the worship service began.

 With newly discovered evidence and testimony from key witnesses, the case was re-opened for the second time in the spring of 2000 and Blanton, along with another suspect, were indicted on first-degree murder charges in the bombing. Less than a year later, Blanton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carol Robertson

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was a watershed moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, which sought racial equality through the passing of laws that granted voting rights and abolished discrimination. Much of the nation turned a blind-eye toward the struggle that inflamed racial tensions and prompted numerous bombings of black homes and businesses across the South. But when news agencies reported that church-attending children had become the first victims of a bombing, the nation immediately focused its entire attention on stopping the evil of prejudice and bigotry.

Sitting in a chair a few inches from one of the men responsible for such a senseless tragedy, months before his trial began, was daunting as a young newspaper reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald. I had been given the unique chance to interview a man who had never spoken to the press since the bombing, and per the instruction of Blanton’s lawyer, the ex-Klansman was not allowed to answer questions about his association with the Klan or aspects of the case. Nor was I permitted to ask such questions, otherwise the interview was done. [1]

I didn’t have a clue as to how to focus the interview so I’d have a story to take back to my editors. And I was both anxious and excited by the possibility that Blanton might slip up and reveal something incriminating about his involvement in the bombing.  But mostly, I felt weak and helpless.

I managed to conduct a decent interview and churn out a front-page piece that focused on how Blanton denied his guilt, helped his lawyer prepare his defense and lamented the negative attention he received. However, there was a part of me that wanted to say something to Blanton, even if it meant losing the interview.  Deep inside my heart, I wanted to rebuke him. I wanted to demand that he let loose the tormenting demon inside by confessing that he helped kill four little girls and devastated their loved ones! I wanted to confront evil with a great command of authority! But I couldn’t.

And yet this desire within me—to speak out against evil ( “world with devils filled” as the hymn A Mighty Fortress says) and to love the broken-hearted—grew every time I covered a story about a person taking the life of another:

 work place shooting rampages

drug-deals gone badly

gang activity

armed robberies

family members murdering one another

spousal suicide murders, sometimes in front of their toddlers

drive-by shootings where innocents were killed by stray bullets

Eventually, I realized my purpose in life was not to report on tragic news stories on a weekly basis, but answer a call to be a pastor who lives out and helps others embody the biblical story, which reminds us that the power of God’s unconditional and non-violent love in Christ overcomes all evil.  So I left the newspaper and entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. But even now, seven years after I became an ordained minister, I still struggle mightily with confronting evil.

I truly wish that I could be like Gandalf from the 2001 movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the scene where the wizard makes a defiant stand against the demonically monstrous Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, fiercely shouting “Go back to the shadow…YOU SHALL NOT… PASS!” It’s exhilarating to witness magical and heroic figures from film and literature challenge evil in such a glorious way.  I revel in the possibility that I could be just as daring as Gandalf if evil loomed before me like Balrog.

When I snap out of that daydream, I remember that there have actually been many ordinary folks throughout history, especially in recent decades, who have stood without any special powers against oppressive and unjust systems that are just as scary if not more so than a fictional monster. 

Wang Wei Lin, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, June 5, 1989

The first image that comes to mind is the famous photo of a man, shopping bags in each hand, standing in front of a column of 18 enormously dangerous tanks the morning after the Chinese military forcibly removed protestors of the Communist regime from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989.

To this day, no one knows the real name of the man, dubbed by a UK newspaper as Wang Wei Lin and referred to by many as the Tank Man.  Nor does anyone know what happened to him after he made his stand. But what Wang Wei Lin did for 5 minutes on that morning would be remembered forever.

As the tanks came through Tiananmen Square, the man walked into the middle of the otherwise empty street (without any warning) and stopped directly in the path of the armored vehicles. When the tanks came to a stop, the man gestured towards the machines with his bags. In response, the lead tank attempted to drive around the man, but the man repeatedly stepped into the path of the tank in a show of nonviolent action. After repeatedly attempting to go around rather than crush the man, the lead tank stopped its engines, and the other armored vehicles followed in suit.

Having successfully brought the column to a halt, the man climbed atop the turret and seemed to briefly speak with a crew member at the gunner’s hatch, where he reportedly said “Why are you here? My country is in chaos because of you.” Then the man descended from the tank, and a few seconds later, the vehicles restarted their engines, ready to proceed. At that point, the man, who was still standing within a meter or two from the side of the lead tank, leapt in front of the vehicle once again and quickly reestablished the man–tank standoff. Then two figures in blue attire pulled the man away and disappeared with him into a nearby crowd; the tanks continued on their way.[2]

Although the Tank Man didn’t permanently halt the terror of the Chinese government in its tracks, his stand is a reminder of how the common man or woman can confront evil, non-violently and without special powers, not even a gun.

Like Wang Wei Lin, other Chinese citizens also confront evil on their nation’s streets today, often walking into the brothels of mafia-run red light districts to tell girls as young as 13 that they can leave prostitution. In brave, rebellious acts of non-violent resistance, members of Mercy Outreach rescue women and children from the menace of sex trafficking and slavery.[3]

In countries like Columbia where citizens are caught in the crossfire of army, guerilla and paramilitary forces, groups of women, farmers and Indigenous leaders gather to non-violently protest the destruction of their country. They stand up to death squads without ever firing a bullet from or swinging a machete to harm their oppressors. [4]

Muslims and Christians unite during the Egyptian Revolution, January 2011, Google Images

And of course, we’re all familiar with the ongoing Egyptian Revolution that began a year ago this month. We watched this remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance unfold on our Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, smart-phones and TVs. Millions of protestors from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds demanded the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his ruthless regime. Some of the most striking pictures and stories of the Revolution have been of Christians and Muslims making a passionate non-violent stand against the evil of oppression together!

  That might sound idealistic and naïve to some of you: the idea of confronting evil with non-violent action, of responding to evil with defiant acts of mercy, reconciliation, peace and love. It’s not the type of thing that many Christians want to do. And it’s certainly not a practice that a lot of churches and pastors recommend for its congregants.

But standing in love against the evils that pervade the world is exactly what it means to be a disciple, to be a follower of Christ, to be a fisher for people.  If we are to cast our nets wide to lovingly invite others to be a part of God’s good work, then we must be prepared to encounter opposition—hostility and violent resistance from people and systems so fueled by evil, they will do everything within their power to make us crumble.

In a volume of sermons entitled Strength To Love, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who spent a lifetime confronting the evils of racism, wisely said:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others[5]

During times of challenge and controversy, we are called out by God to stand with Christ and confront evil with the bold and unwavering truth of love.  We are called to risk everything to care for our neighbor…without resorting to violent and deadly means.

After calling the disciples to become fishers of people, Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel, went to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath, he entered the synagogue to teach.  The crowds are amazed by his teachings for Jesus, the step-son of a carpenter and a un-ordained rabbi, teaches as “one having authority.” And it’s the authority of God-with-us that responds to the man possessed by an unclean spirit instead of the appointed religious leaders who arrogantly and selfishly ignore the poor and suffering.

Jesus and The Unclean Spirit by Cerezo Baraedo, 1999

Jesus, without raising a hand in violence, stands his ground and says to the demon: “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, after convulsing within the man and then crying with a loud voice, comes out and then presumably disappears! The crowd is astounded again, saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

A preaching professor of mine in seminary once wrote that Jesus’ exorcisms and healings…

were not simply actions on behalf of individuals but at a deeper level presented a challenge to the powers of death at work in the world. Through his healings Jesus not only restored people to physical health but restored outsiders, and unclean persons to community and social standing.[6]

This incident where Jesus confronts the unclean spirit in the synagogue reveals that God in Christ has authority over all things, even evil and death. The episode is a foreshadowing of the evens that occur at the end of the gospel story…

when Jesus’s crucifixion—an act of nonviolent resistance—“exposes the lies and pretensions of the powers” and

when the resurrection of Jesus—a demonstration of the power of new life—“sets the church free from the fear of death that so often prevents us from…following Jesus.”

And following this all-loving, mercy-filled pacifist Jesus that we study in scripture is, of course,  never easy…especially when we know that evil still lurks in the dark and broken places of the world.  As my professor suggests:

Although ultimately overcome in the cross and resurrection, the powers continue to go about their deadly work in the world, often with the intensity and violence of an injured beast.

This, of course, doesn’t make me feel any more confident about confronting evil, although I know it’s what God calls us to do as followers.  But maybe this non-violent act of “staring the beast in the eye”[7] with love doesn’t always have to be as intense as blocking 17 tanks with your body or risking your life to go into the slums to save teenage prostitutes.

Maybe it’s the other types of ministry that we do with and for others in Jesus’ name that are just as bold and defiant in the face of the evil-powered systems of the world.  Maybe it’s the daily, selfish acts of service that also loudly rebuke the demons that try to prevent us from caring for another human being. Consider for a moment that in every instance where you have…

served food to the hungry in Atlanta, Charlotte or Haiti

helped build homes in New Orleans, Tuscaloosa or Honduras

volunteered time and resources to Rainbow VillageFamily PromiseDuluth Co-Op

invited the men from Clifton Sanctuary Ministries to worship

taught children about caring for God’s creation

participated in a Bible study

helped young people grow in their faith

cared for a refugee family

given blood to the Red Cross

walked for a cure for Cancer or AIDS

visited a prisoner in jail

treated the mentally ill with dignity

comforted the sick and dying

chosen to walk away from a physical fight

denounced words and actions that are demeaning toward a person’s

race, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and physical-mental development

accepted gays and lesbians as called by God to serve as ordained church leaders

advocated for peace and reconciliation instead of violent retribution

loved those whom you disagree with and call “enemy”

… you have made a stand with Christ by confronting evil and its oppressive, unjust systems of hate, greed, disease, destruction, poverty, addiction, slavery war, and violence. In every instance, you have rebuked those malevolent powers that seek to undermine God’s power. In every instance you have said with your entire being…

Be silent! Be gone! Go back to the shadow…YOU SHALL… NOT PASS!

God’s love endures forever! AND EVER! AMEN!

___________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] “Blanton: Need files, Bombing suspect talks about his case”, by Andy Acton, The Birmingham Post-Herald, Friday, August 25, 2000.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_Man

[3] “Works of Mercy: Chinese churches face off against human trafficking—and start to see social justice as part of their mission” by Sylvia Yu, Sojourners Magazine, February 2012

[4] “Standing Up To Death Squads: Caught in the crossfire of army, guerilla, and paramilitary forces, women, farmers, and Indigenous leaders in Columbia fight bravely for the right to live” by Elizabeth Palmberg, Sojourners Magazine, February 2012

[5] Strength To Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Harper and Row Publishers, 1963

[6] The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching by Charles L. Campbell, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

[7]  A phrase coined by retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu while speaking on “The Spirituality of Reconciliation at the National Cathedral on Nov. 13, 2007.