Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sermon, "The Holy Club: A Matter of Faith," Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 32-40, 12:1-12

Sermon 6/23/19
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 32-40, 12:1-2


The Holy Club: A Matter of Faith

Today we’re continuing in our sermon series on The Holy Club. The Holy Club, remember, was the name given to John and Charles Wesley and their friends who started gathering regularly - several times a week - to encourage each other in their discipleship, to be accountable to each other in their faith journeys. As part of this plan of accountability, they had a set of questions - twenty-one (ish, depending on how you count) that they would use for self-reflection, and then share their reflections with their group. And during this series, we’re trying to follow along with them.
You can see in your bulletin insert the next set of questions from the twenty-one that we’re focusing on today: When did I last speak to someone else about my faith? Am I defeated in any part of my life? Am I proud? Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying? Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican? Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it? Do I grumble or complain constantly? Is Christ real to me? Like last week, I find all of the questions challenging: I’d have to acknowledge, if I’m honest about these questions, that sometimes, for example, what I’m doing about the feelings of resentment I have toward someone is nurturing them, rather than working for healing and reconciliation. But today, we’re particularly focusing on the theme of “faith,” having faith, growing faith in our discipleship journey, and so I’m particularly keyed in on the first and last question on that list.
First: When did I last speak to someone else about my faith? When we asked ourselves this question at Bible study last week, I asked the class to further narrow the question: When did you last speak about your faith to someone who wasn’t a part of this congregation, to someone who wasn’t perhaps part of any congregation? You might think that as a pastor, I have this question in the bag. I talk to people about faith all the time, right? And truly, I do. But if I am not careful, not intentional, I spend so much of my time attending to the ins and out of our church life here, in this place, that I’m not spending nearly as much time talking to folks who aren’t connected to this faith community or any faith community as I think God calls me to be. I have to be intentional about cultivating relationships with folks who aren’t already moving in the same circles as I am. And what’s more: I have to be interested in real relationships with people. If I’m trying to get to know people just enough that I can tell them how much better off they’d be if they shared my faith? Well, people will not be impressed by that kind of inauthenticity! Sharing my faith with others also means living without fear of whether others will like me or not. I’m not saying we’re meant to boldly thump people over the head with our faith. In my experience, that basically never produces the desired results! But I’m saying: sometimes claiming the faith of Jesus is hard. We might feel uncool, out of step with culture, old-fashioned somehow, or like we’ll be labeled as overzealous, self-righteous folks. It can be hard to talk about our faith when it would be easier to get along if we stayed quiet. Easier, for sure. But if we’re not sharing our faith with others, and our faith is a significant part of who we are, then we’re never be able to share our full selves with others if we keep holding back. Sometimes young people are our best models for sharing faith sincerely, sharing their whole selves without editing because of how they might be received. That’s one of the things I appreciate about Taylor sharing today: Taylor is pretty transparent. She’s sincere, and you don’t have to wonder about the things that are important to her, because they shine through. How well do the people in your life know what’s important to you? Do they know how your faith shapes you?
The last question asks: Is Christ real to you? How would you answer this question? Some days, maybe you struggle to say yes. Or maybe it’s easy for you to affirm this statement all the time. And if that’s the case, I’ll ask a follow up: How do you demonstrate it? How do you show that Christ is real to you? What evidence is there in your life that Christ is real to you?  
Our scripture text today is from the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 11 has been one of my favorite chapters of the Bible since I was little. It is a beautiful litany of the ways in which people all throughout the stories in the scriptures relied on their faith in God to help them do the seemingly impossible, to confront injustice, to stand up in the face of persecution, to travel to unknown places and face hostile opposition. It’s a litany of people who heard God’s promises, believed them, and lived their lives accordingly, even when they didn’t get to see those promises come to pass in their lifetime. I encourage you to read the whole chapter.
The author writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” After listing many we might think of as biblical “heroes,” the author says, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” And he concludes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” For every name listed in Hebrews 11, God was very real to them, and it showed. Because their faith in God was firm - not because they were so wonderful, but because they believed that God was truly so wonderful - they were able to live faithfully, serve faithfully in God’s name.  
As we reflect on these Holy Club questions today, as we’ve listened to Taylor’s testimony, as we are full of hope for the lives, for the futures of the people we celebrate today: the newly baptized, our friends heading to a new place, our graduates entering a new season of life, as we hear the litany of faith in Hebrews, I have a few questions of my own to add to Wesley’s.
What have you done by faith? In other words, what has your faith enabled you to do that you couldn’t have done or wouldn’t have done otherwise?
Who is in your cloud of witnesses? The author of Hebrews lists so many from the biblical witness. If you had to write your own version of Hebrews 11, whose faith stories are the ones that are shaping and inspiring you, beyond the pages of the Bible?
Have you endured consequences for your faith? What helps you get through, when keeping faith is hard?

What promises of God can you see being fulfilled in your life, but maybe still at a distance? Today when I think of Hadley and Sutherlynn, Shea-Marie and Taylor and Emily, Cadie, Kelly, Ayse, Killian, Bryn, and Rhydian - I see people in whom the promises of God are at work. And the unfolding of some of these promises, I hope we get to see up close, as young lives unfold in our midst, and with our support. And some of these promises we’ll see unfold but from a distance. Wherever we are, wherever we go, whatever we encounter: God is faithful. Christ is real. And God’s promises are realized in their time. That’s a blessing worth sharing, a faith worth sharing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sermon, "The Holy Club: A Matter of Trust," Proverbs 3:1-8, Luke 16:10-12

Sermon 6/16/19
Luke 16:10-12, Proverbs 3:1-8


The Holy Club: A Matter of Trust


When John Wesley and his younger brother Charles were students in college, they struggled with how to keep growing in faith, despite the rigors of higher education. John was hoping that having his brother near him at school meant that he would have a partner to keep him on track, to keep him accountable with his discipleship, but when Charles first went to Oxford, he sort of “put his faith on hold” like many other students. By then John had become a fellow, a teacher of other students at Oxford, and then went to serve as pastor of a church. But eventually, he received a letter from Charles. Charles wrote, “I … awoke out of my lethargy.” Charles “wrote of his renewed desire to focus on his spiritual growth. He also asked for tips on keeping a spiritual journal, a practice John found helpful.” (1)
John took the opportunity when offered to go back to his teaching post as a fellow at Oxford, and he and Charles and a couple of other friends started meeting together regularly. In fact, they gathered together for 3-4 evenings each week. They would review and discuss classic books together along with the Greek New Testament. Group members tried to serve God every hour of the day. They set aside time for praying, examining their spiritual lives very carefully, and meeting together, and they also engaged in service to others, bringing food to the poor, visiting people in prison, and teaching orphans to read. They also fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3pm as a spiritual practice, and shared in Holy Communion together weekly, a then uncommon practice in the Church of England of which they were part. (2) Others started calling the group “The Holy Club.” Like the name “Methodist,” “The Holy Club” was not a name Wesley and his friends gave themselves. Instead, it was meant to be an insult from others who mocked their intense practices. They were labeled “enthusiasts,” people with “excessive religious behavior,” and even teased with a little rhyme:
By rule they eat, by rule they drink,
By rule do all things but think.
Accuse the priests of loose behavior.
To get more in the laymen's favor.
Method alone must guide 'em all
When themselves "Methodists" they call. (3)
Despite the critiques, though, the small group persisted, with many of its members making significant contributions to their faith over the following years. The “Holy Club” model also served as a guide for the model of Methodist societies, small groups of disciples encouraging each other in faithfulness, that formed the backbone of the Methodist church to come.
For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at a set of 21 questions that members of the Holy Club used. They’d reflect on these questions in their private devotional time, and then meet with each other to share about their discipleship together. (4) And as we think about our Methodist heritage and the example John and Charles Wesley set, we’ll see if their Holy Club questions can help us deepen our discipleship - or if we’re prone to make up new rhymes about methodical Methodists!
The Wesleys and the Holy Club, and eventually the Methodist movement that grew from it all emphasized practices of accountability for a growing discipleship. Practicing accountability in our discipleship means letting others in on our faith journey, and that’s something that can be very difficult for us in our culture. We prize individualism and privacy, and lots of spheres in our world emphasize that your religious views are your own - not open to the scrutiny or questioning of others. And so we sometimes let our discipleship turn very inward. We want our faith journey to be just between us and God. But God is always sticking our neighbor smack in between. How do we demonstrate our love of God? Through the way we love one another. How can we draw close to God? In part, by drawing close to each other.
Next Sunday and the week after, we’ll celebrate baptisms during worship. From time to time, I get shy folks ask me if they can have a baptism outside of worship, because they’re so uncomfortable being up front. But I’ll work hard to find ways to make them more relaxed within the worship service - because our acts of faith are never between just us and God. The community always gets invited into our covenant. We all make promises to each other: God, us, and the whole congregation. Listen to these words from our baptismal covenant:
I ask the whole congregation: “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?”
The people respond: “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. we will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
I give the charge: “Members of the household of God, I commend these persons to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
The people respond: “As members together with you in the body of Christ, we renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 37-38)
We’re accountable to each other, even if we’re much less intense about it than the Wesleys and The Holy Club were. Being together is an integral, irreplaceable part of our faith journey. Supporting each other in discipleship is something for which there is no substitute. We need each other to be the body of Christ. So, who are the people in your life helping you grow in discipleship? How can you entrust more of your spiritual journey to them, sharing heart and soul with them?
This week, we’re looking at some of the 21 questions Wesley and his friends asked themselves and each other each week, questions that broadly look to questions of trust and discipleship. Is God trustworthy? Are we trustworthy? How do we grow in our trustworthiness in our relationships with God and one another? Wesley and his friends asked each other:
Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
Can I be trusted?
Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
Do I disobey God in anything?
At our Wednesday night Bible study this past week we asked these questions as a group, and found them challenging. If we have to answer these as the simple yes/no questions they’re presented as, our answers are pretty stark. Yes, sometimes I’m a hypocrite. Yes, sometimes I exaggerate. I am not always 100% honest in every situation. I have not kept every confidence shared with me. I have not always been worthy of trust. Sometimes I’ve done things despite knowing better. I’ve been jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touch, and distrustful. I’ve disobeyed God. Admitting that to God, myself, and out loud is hard, even though I suspect I’m in pretty good company with my answers. But I also think these questions push us farther. We talked about that at Bible Study too - when do I find myself disobeying God and why and how can I do things differently next time? In what situations do I find myself trying to make myself seem better than I am, exaggerating? We talked about, for example, the enormous pressure we face in world of social media to make ourselves look great online. We tend not to post pictures of our dirty dishes, but instead only our well-arranged rooms. We tend not to post times we’ve been bad parents or bad friends, and instead share our successes or the triumphs of our children (or niece and nephew!) Of course we do this. What’s the cost to our spiritual life when we can’t be honest about the real, messy, sinful people we are, and instead have to pretend to have it together all the time? When we’re pretending with everybody else, how easy is it to start pretending with God too? If we pretend with God, how can we grow? How can we experience forgiveness and reconciliation if we can never admit we’re in need of them? As I let these Holy Club questions into my heart, I find them pretty challenging indeed.
Today we heard a passage from Proverbs. I have to admit, it isn’t my go-to book of the Bible, and I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on it before! But as I was thinking about these questions of discipleship and trust, it tugged at me. In our text, God is telling us not to forget God’s commandments, but instead to remember that following God’s commandments brings us abundant well-being. Instead, we should keep God’s word close at hand, around our neck, written on our hearts. And when we do that, the writer says, now shifting points of view, we’ll find favor with both God and neighbor. The best way for us to be trustworthy is by trusting entirely in God. If we trust God, we don’t have to rely on our own faulty wisdom. God will guide us. God will be our wisdom. God will help us turn from evil. The writer concludes, “It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.” I love that image. It fills me with peace. When we put our trust in God, and let God be our guide, we experience healing and refreshment. Don’t we want that?
Of course, we can trust God, always. But here’s something surprising for us to think about: God trusts us too! Again and again, God trusts us. God starts out trusting us with responsibility for the rest of creation right in the beginning of Genesis, and God trusts us with carrying out the work of Jesus for the rest of our days. And all in between that, God entrusts us with caring for people and places and messages and situations. Again and again, God shows a great willingness to trust us. Despite how often we mess up what God puts into our hands, God trusts us. Is God foolish to trust us when we so often fail? I don’t think so. Instead, I think our God of all hopefulness, the one who created us, knows just how much potential we have. God knows all we are capable of doing and being. And God knows that when we commit to growing as disciples, we grow more and more ready to handle what God entrusts to us.
Can we be trusted? With God’s help, and with the help of our friends on this journey, to whom we open our hearts and souls, we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.

(1) Iovino, Joe, “The Method of Early Methodism: The Oxford Holy Club,” UMC.org, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-method-of-early-methodism-the-oxford-holy-club.
(2)   Keysor, Charles W. (1996). Our Methodist Heritage. Good News, 12. 
(3) Ibid. 
(4) “John Wesley and The Holy Club’s 22 Questions,” Hope, Faith, Prayer. https://www.hopefaithprayer.com/john-wesley-holy-club-questions/


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Acts 2:1-21

Sermon 6/9/19
Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost

The Holy Spirit is weird. Let’s just acknowledge that right from the get-go. Christians are Trinitarian. That is, we worship one God, but we believe that God is a Trinity - three “persons,” one God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer; God, Christ, Spirit. And that’s great. But many of us, maybe even most of us are a lot more comfortable talking about who God is, the one we think of as Creator and Parent, and talking about Jesus, his teachings, and following as his disciples, than we are figuring out what this Holy Spirit thing is. In the weeks between the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and when Jesus finally returns to God’s home, as we celebrated last week on Ascension Sunday, Jesus keeps talking about this Holy Spirit thing that’s supposed to come and help the disciples feel equipped and prepared to do the work of Jesus in the world. And I’m not sure exactly what the disciples were expecting to have happen, but if they’re anything like me, what I would be thinking is: I’d rather just have you, Jesus. If you’re trying to sell that you leaving isn’t so bad because we’re getting this Spirit-thing that you never quite describe the same way twice, I’d rather just have you, Jesus! Because this Holy Spirit thing just sounds weird.
The Holy Spirit is described as Comforter, Intercessor, Advocate, and Counselor. It is called the Paraclete, a Greek word which means “Called Alongside,” as in something called to kind of journey alongside us. In church history, the phrase, “Holy Ghost” has been used, and that’s just, well, spooky, right? The scriptures use images of Dove and Fire for the Holy Spirit. The word for Spirit in the scriptures is the same as wind or breath - so we can think of Holy Wind and Holy Breath instead of Holy Spirit. Recently I was talking with Don Schuessler about some liturgical resources that come from the Iona Community. That’s a Scottish-based ecumenical movement focusing in part on worship renewal. I used many of their materials this year on Palm/Passion Sunday. And their publishing arm is called Wild Goose. Don and I were talking about what that meant, and I didn’t know. But I’m also going to a worship conference this summer called the “Wild Goose Festival.” So finally I had to look up: Why Wild Goose? And it turns out - the Wild Goose is yet another symbol for the Holy Spirit. Apparently, in Celtic spirituality, the wild goose was often used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit because, like the wild goose, the Holy Spirit has a “tendency to disrupt and surprise” and “moves in our lives in an unexpected fashion.” (1) So, add wild goose to the list as we try to figure out this mystery we call the Holy Spirit.
I think of a 90s song from the Christian band “Newsboys” that I always loved, called “Spirit Thing.” The singer is trying to describe how the Holy Spirit works in his life, and finds it challenging. Some of the lyrics: “It's an early warning sign, It keeps my life in line, But it's so hard to define, Never mind. It's just a spirit thing, It's just a holy nudge, It's like a circuit charge in the brain. It's just a spirit thing, It's here to guard my heart, It's just a little hard to explain. It pushes when I quit, It smells a counterfeit, Sometimes it works a bit like a teleprompter. When it's telepromting you, I pray you'll let it through, And I'll help you with the how, But for now, It's just a spirit thing.” (2)
A holy nudge, prompting us to action. I like that. So, today, Pentecost Sunday, is the day we celebrate that, just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit showed up for the disciples in a big way. They’re in Jerusalem, because Jesus had told them to wait there to receive the spirit. And lots of other people are there too, to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival in Judaism, the Feast of Weeks. And suddenly, the sounds of a violent rushing wind fills the place where the disciples are, and something like tongues of fire appears to rest on the head of each disciple, and each disciple begins speaking in other languages that they apparently previously didn’t know, and all the people gathered for the festival can understand them. The experience is so weird, so unexpected and unexplainable that some in the crowd assume that what they’re seeing is the result of drunkenness. Drunken antics of people who have been partying too much. But at this accusation, Peter finally stands up with the disciples, and addresses everyone.
He tells the crowds that what they are witnessing is the work of the Holy Spirit. He quotes the prophet Joel, who talked about everybody receiving the Spirit, which would enable them to prophesy, to tell the truth in powerful ways about the work of God in the world. Joel says God’s spirit will be poured out on sons and daughters, young and old, slaves too - everyone receives the Spirit of God. And Peter, by quoting Joel, indicates that the pouring out of the Spirit is happening right then, fulfilled in the midst of all these people. And from here on out, the book of Acts picks up steam, and the disciples are relentlessly about the work of preaching about Jesus, and urging others to join their movement.
It’s a pretty big switch, when you think that just last Sunday, we were watching the disciples stare up at the sky, not knowing what to do with themselves, not sure what Jesus was doing, not sure what was happening next. They seemed unsure of themselves, unclear on their mission, anxious to be carrying out any mission without Jesus there to guide them. This Spirit-thing, whatever it is, Wild Goose or Holy Ghost, or Nudge from God - it seems to make a big impact.
I think it is pretty easy for us to relate to the disciples when they’re unsure and unclear and confused and sort of stuck in suspended animation, unable to act. I’ve been thinking this week about Imposter Syndrome. Have you ever heard of that before? Imposter Syndrome? Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve probably experienced it.  “Imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” In other words, it’s a fear that we’ll be “found out” as not really qualified to do whatever it is we’re doing, whatever it is that people think we’re good at. Like we’re somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else who thinks we’ve got it together. “The term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, when they found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remained convinced that they don’t deserve the success they have.” Folks struggling with imposter syndrome “call their success luck, good timing, and [dismiss it] as other’s believing they were better, more intelligent and more competent than they actually are.” (3)
Probably, many of you resonate with the description I just read. Most of us at one time or another feel like imposters. We feel unqualified. Unequipped. Unimpressive. We feel like we don’t really know what we’re doing, and eventually other people are going to figure us out. And like there is most definitely someone else who would be doing a better job at what we’re doing. They’d be really getting it right. And I think we feel like this when it comes to our faith lives too. Like we’re imposter disciples - pretending we know how to follow Jesus, but feeling on the inside like we have no idea what to do to please God, to be faithful, to live the good lives we know God means for us to live.
I was very young when I started pastoring my first church. And one day, I wasn’t a pastor, and the next day, I was. I had a lot to learn still, even though I’d been to seminary for years and completed all the requirements set forth for me. I felt a little bit like I was pretending to be a pastor, and hoping I would get it right, or close enough to right that no one would figure it out. But here’s the thing, friends. I’ve been a pastor now for 16 years. Some parts of ministry I feel really confident about. But sometimes, when I encounter a new situation in ministry, or when I’m trying to figure out what I should do to best follow God, or when I’m trying to figure out how to communicate the heart of the gospel in a way that will make people show up and listen and invest their lives in this Jesus-thing with me? Sometimes I still feel like I’m mostly pretending that I know what I’m doing! I know you struggle sometimes too. I know you wonder if you’re making the right choices. I know you wonder about how to really hear and respond to God’s voice. I know sometimes people seek advice from you about faith and God and you can’t figure out how you’ve fooled them into thinking you know enough to help them.
But, don’t lose heart! Because this Spirit thing? This Holy Ghost-Comforter-Paraclete-Wild Goose-Breath of God-Wind-Advocate-Nudge that comes in a blaze of fire or in the gentle glide of a dove? As confusing as it is, as hard as it is to describe what the Holy Spirit is, it is for you. What it is is the very Spirit of God, the heart of Jesus, the breath of God, dwelling in you. God is in you. And there is nothing fake about that. No part of that that’s not real. No part of your identity as a child of God that is an imposter in anyway.  
Some of you are probably already familiar with this famous poem from writer Marianne Williamson, from her book A Return to Love. It’s called “Our Deepest Fear,” and I’ve been thinking about it as a sort of antithesis to those times we let Imposter Syndrome undermine our discipleship. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness That most frightens us. We ask ourselves Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small Does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking So that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, As children do. We were born to make manifest The glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; It's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, Our presence automatically liberates others.” (4)
To me, this is a bit of a Pentecost poem. “You are a child of God. We were born to make manifest The glory of God that is within us.” We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. That’s not about showing everyone how great we are. That’s about showing everyone who awesome God is, and letting God use us to do it. That’s about knowing that we don’t have to do it all on our own, because God’s very breath is within us. That’s about knowing that this Spirit-thing is within us, supporting our work for God, helping us to show God’s glory to the world.
On Pentecost, Peter and the disciples discovered the Spirit thing within them. And they stopped feeling like imposters, and started feeling inspired - which literally means being full of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit? We’re not still waiting for it. We already have it. Even if we can’t quite describe it, it’s ours. We’re children of God, born to make manifest the glory of God in the world. By the power of the Spirit, let’s get to work. Amen.

(1)  Kosloski, Philip, “How the wild goose became a symbol of vigilance and the Holy Spirit.” Aleteia. https://aleteia.org/2017/10/02/how-the-wild-goose-became-a-symbol-of-vigilance-and-the-holy-spirit/
(2) https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/81225/
(3) Dalla-Camina, Megan, “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome. 
(4) Williamson, Marianne, "Our Deepest Fear," A Return to Love.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Acts 1:1-11

Sermon 6/2/19
Acts 1:1-11

Ascension

I shared with you a couple of weeks ago my joy that I’d gotten to attend my niece’s first dance recital. She’s been taking tap and ballet, and she loves it. She’s in the three and four year old class, and of course, the skill level is - well, the skills at that point are mostly about being willing to stand up in front of a room of people who are all staring at you and smiling big goofy grins and taking your picture, and of course, the managing to be excessively cute while doing this, and all the children in Siggy’s class managed to accomplish this. No one ran off stage that I could see - everyone got up front and did their thing.
At one point, though, all though the children were standing up front and smiling and being cute enough, they didn’t seem to be doing much dancing. Ok - there was not much dancing happening at the best of moments, but they were mostly just standing there at one point, and I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t sure, that is, until after the song was over and Miss Jillian, the teacher, stepped up front and asked everyone to clear out of the center aisle. You see, over the course of the recital, anxious family members, wanting the perfect photo or recording of their little dancer, had creeped farther and farther into the center aisle, until it was quite full. (I don’t judge - I certainly had my own camera out even though I stayed in my seat!) And Miss Jillian had been standing at the back of the room, doing all the dance moves so that her students could watch and copy her. But with the family members filling the aisle, the dancers could no longer see the teacher, and so they just stopped dancing. They didn’t actually remember any of the steps on their own, and so if they couldn’t see their teacher, they couldn’t dance.
I couldn’t help but have this image in mind - all the little dancers, no longer knowing quite what to do if they couldn’t see their teacher, as I read our scripture  text for today. Today is Ascension Sunday. It’s not exactly a “huge” Sunday in the life of the church, particularly in Protestant traditions, but over the years it has started to feel more significant to me. It was certainly significant to the disciples. The Ascension is the day forty days after Easter Sunday when Jesus ascends into heaven and leaves earth, at least in his physical human incarnation. We celebrate on the Sunday nearest to the forty day mark. I’m not sure why we don’t make a big thing of the Ascension. I guess Jesus leaving earth isn’t as exciting as Jesus arriving on earth at Christmas, and maybe because we figure Christ never really leaves if we’re talking about his presence, or the way we embody Jesus on earth, so it isn’t such a big deal, and maybe since Jesus has already left through his crucifixion and death but then returned as the resurrected Christ - maybe all of this makes the Ascension feel anticlimactic. But when I think about it, for the disciples - this moment is HUGE! It’s everything? Sure, they are not crushed in grief like they were just after the crucifixion. But this time they know Jesus is really leaving earth, and he’s not coming back, not in the same way, not now. This time, their time spending their every day with Jesus in the flesh is really, certainly done. The disciples must be overwhelmed with emotions. What should they be feeling? What should they do now?   
The scene in Acts 1 just before the Ascension unfolds like this. Luke, author of both Acts and Luke, tells us that Jesus has instructed the disciples to stay in Jerusalem, because they’ll be receiving this thing called the Holy Spirit. They’ll be “baptized” with the Spirit Jesus says. We’ll be talking all about the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost. They’re to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit. But the disciples still don’t seem to understand - or at least they don’t want to understand - that Jesus is about to leave. They ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Essentially, the disciples are asking - still, as they and others have been throughout Jesus’ entire ministry - when Jesus is going to put things back in order in the world. It sounds like Jesus is talking about leaving. The messiah has come, and now the messiah is leaving, but Israel is still an occupied country. The Roman government is still in charge. Things still haven’t returned to the way they were in the golden age of David. Everything hasn’t been perfected yet through God’s action in Jesus. If Jesus is leaving, when exactly is all that stuff supposed to happen?
Jesus answers in a way that I’m sure frustrates them if they’re a group seeking concrete answers. He says: It’s not for you to know! It’s not for you to know the things that God has determined! The disciples have some tasks ahead of them, but knowing what God has planned when isn’t one of them. What they can know is this: they’ll be getting the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus reminds them, and then they will be witnesses for Jesus both in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. In other words, they will be the ones sharing what they have seen and heard and learned from Jesus with everyone everywhere. With those words, Jesus ascends to heaven, and all the disciples are looking up at the sky, following as he moves out of their sight.
While they’re still gazing at the heavens, eyes fixed on the last spot where they could still see Jesus, two messengers of God appear. Their words remind me of the words of the messengers at the empty tomb on Easter, who asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Today, these messengers ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? He’s been taken up to heaven!” But: there are words of comfort too: eventually, someday, at that time that’s not for us to know, Jesus will return. In the meantime - “in the meantime” is the time that we, the disciples of Jesus, are responsible for carrying out the work with which Jesus has charged us. We’re to be witnesses, people who are recounting to others the truth about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what we are called to do in response to God’s offering of love and grace.
When I think of the disciples, gazing up into heaven, I picture my niece’s dance class, when they can’t see the teacher anymore because of all the people who are standing in the way. For Siggy and her class, they simply hadn’t been students of ballet and tap long enough that they could continue to dance without someone to watch closely. They needed the teacher right in front of them. Eventually, after more years of lessons, they won’t need that anymore. But they don’t know enough yet. They’re beginners. It’s all still so new, and they can’t do it if they can’t watch their teacher doing it too so they can copy.
I think for a moment, the disciples felt just that way. They couldn’t see their teacher clearly anymore, and maybe they should just stop dancing. How could they do it without Jesus right there with them? But they weren’t beginners. They have had years of lessons, years of following Jesus, learning his ways, practicing what he preached and taught. They have to keep dancing, even when the teacher isn’t standing where they can just copy his movements. Because if they can’t, they’ll never be dancers. They’ll always be students, and being folks who always are learning is good, but the disciples have to be ready to take on the work of Jesus themselves. That’s why Jesus had them follow him for so long - so they could be the ones to carry his work to the whole world. If the disciples can’t become dancers - messengers of the work of Jesus in the world - Jesus’s mission and purpose in the world would never be fulfilled. Thankfully, the disciples, empowered by the gift of the Spirit as we see next week, realize that Jesus has given them all the tools they need to do God’s work in the world, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to be the body of Christ in the world. And beginning with that small group of disciples, the message of Jesus and God’s grace spreads and spreads.
What about us, I wonder? We’re disciples too. We’ve been following Jesus too. Some of us may indeed be beginners. We’re following Jesus for the first time in our lives. We’re new to this Jesus thing. But many of us made the commitment to be disciples long ago. We’ve renewed our commitment again and again. Are we dancers? Or are we still looking for the teacher so we can copy the footwork?
Last week we had a Leadership Retreat - a team of us who are involved in the Council of Stewards, Council on Ministries, and Staff-Parish Relations Committee gathered to talk about our intentional discipleship plan here at the church. Our intentional discipleship plan, something we’re in the process of developing, is our understanding of how we help folks move from being curious about Jesus, meeting him for the first time, to making a commitment to follow Jesus, becoming a disciple, to then committing to a life of growing and maturing in faith, embodying Jesus more and more fully. That’s our hope for each of us who are connected to this congregation - that we are not just static observers of Jesus, but that we are actively growing in our faith - always drawing closer to God, always going deeper, always giving more and more of ourselves into God’s hands. That’s our priority for how we want to do things around here: how can make sure our ministries and programs and worship and studies are helping people grow as disciples.
I’m not sure everyone is meant to be a leader. Some people are called to servant leadership, and some are meant to be followers, and are never called to take a role as a leader, at least in the sense of being in charge of a committee or running a group or leading a study. That’s ok, truly. Jesus called followers after all, some of whom became leaders, but his priority was to call followers who could be equipped as disciples, apostles, people sent out with the message of Jesus. And I think we can be sent out with the message and work of Jesus, I think we can be witnesses to the work of Jesus without being leaders in the typical sense. But I think sometimes our desire to not be a leader gets mixed up, and turns into us not wanting any responsibility, not wanting to be required to do anything. We look around at the things that need our attention as people of faith acting in God’s name, and we keep waiting for someone else to do it, because we’re not leaders.
But friends, we are disciples. We are followers. We are called and equipped to serve God. We are charged with being witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are supposed to be dancers who have learned enough about the steps that we can do the work of Jesus even though Jesus isn’t physically with us. Why are we looking up at heaven? We already know how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus on earth. So let’s get to it. Let’s dance. Amen.