Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Ascension Sunday, Year A

Readings for Ascension Sunday, 6/5/11
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Acts 1:1-11:
  • Luke's account to Theophilus, Part II. The ascension is such an interesting part of what happens to Jesus, in that, for most, it is something we care about least. Where does it fit in our Christian faith? Is Jesus' ascension important?
  • For me, the importance of the ascension is that we are now left without Jesus physically present - that means we have to do it now - we have to do the work that he has been teaching and teaching about. No excuses, no right-there Jesus to do it for us. Just the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate. Jesus' ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.
  • Ah, those men in white robes again. They're almost like stage directions in a script - they let you know what's going on that is not, apparently, obvious in any other way. I think if I ran across them they would raise more questions for me than they would answer!
  • Luke says that Jesus gives instructions, and shares "many convincing proofs", and is with them for 40 days speaking about the kingdom. It's little verses like these that drive me crazy. Where is all this stuff Jesus said and did? Why didn't Luke record it? Why do we only get to have such little snippets of somebody that we adore so much? Gr!!
Psalm 47:
  • An audience-participation psalm: "Clap your hands!" Lots of musical settings for these words, and no wonder - they make you want to sing and clap!
  • Of course, there in verse 3, is God with subdued people under 'our' feet. Gives the whole psalm the tone of a war-victory psalm of praise.
  • "He chose our heritage for us." I like this verse. God chooses our heritage for us - God chooses our history, our people, our story. I'm all for free will, but I manage to balance that, tricky though it sometimes feels, with a clear sense that God has a hand in or at least an eye on all that goes on in my life. Even better to think of it woven into the tapestry of as weighty a word as "heritage."
Ephesians 1:15-23:
  • I especially like the first part of this passage, verses 15-19. These verses sound like great words of blessing to speak on someone, a person of faith. To pray that God grants wisdom and revelation, enlightenment, riches of Christ's inheritance, knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God's power. . .
  • Aside from that, this passage seems very typical of a lot of the epistle writing. Here is set up the metaphor: Christ as the head of the church and of the body, the church as the body of Christ, and thus under Christ, who is over all things, filling all things.
Luke 24:44-53:
  • Luke's part 1 account of the ascension. Compare and contrast to his testimony in Acts. I think here, the account is more backward reflective - calling up Moses, the fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecies, talking about what has happened up to this point, whereas Acts is setting the stage for what has yet to happen.
  • "And they were continually in the temple blessing God." Indeed - I think we just can't imagine what these first weeks and months for the disciples must have been life. The emotional roller-coaster they must have been on. But to finally just be driven to give thanks - their friend and teacher was still going to be in charge of their lives.
  • Looking back on Luke, moving ahead into Acts. We must take what Jesus has lived, and then live it ourselves. I guess that would be my 'theme' for the day.

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, "Resurrection Responses: Stephen"

Sermon 5/22/11
Acts 7:55-60

Resurrection Responses: Stephen

Today we’re shifting our usual gears a little bit. Instead of looking at the gospel lesson today, we’re taking time to examine a story from the book of Acts – the Acts of the Apostles, the book, written by Luke, that records the development of the early church, the struggles and triumphs of the disciples who tried to carry out Jesus’ message after he returned to God. It is another one of our Resurrection Responses – how the disciples and first followers, first church members, responded to the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life.
Today, we examine a particular life found in Acts, that of Stephen, a man who takes up a small two chapter space in our scriptures. Stephen is known as the first martyr of the Christian faith, the first person who gave up his life because of his belief in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures. Today we read in Acts the account of Stephen’s death, as he was stoned by an angry mob. But his story starts a little earlier in the Book of Acts in Chapter 6. Unlike the disciples like Peter and company, Stephen’s task was not primarily as a preacher of the gospel at all – he wasn’t one of the missionaries. Stephen was part of a group of servants who had a special task in the early church. People outside of the faith criticized that the fervor of the disciples for preaching the gospel had caused them to neglect other duties like feeding the widowed and the needy. Their criticism was a reason for them to reject the teachings of Jesus – the disciples didn’t really take care of those in need! Why believe their message of good news? But the twelve responded, “‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’” So seven were chosen, one of whom was this man we read about today, Stephen. These seven looked on the needs of the least in their community, making sure that those who were without could receive food and be taken care of. In other words, Stephen wasn’t a preacher or a pastor, a missionary or a leader. He was a servant, a helper, a lay person in ministry. If Stephen were a 21st century believer, he might be any one of you – someone who stepped up to help meet the needs of the community.
So how did Stephen go from being such a servant to being the first to give his life for his faith in Jesus? It turns out that Stephen was a rowdy synagogue member. He wasn’t content to just go with the flow or keep quiet in his own community of faith. So Stephen and some of his fellow synagogue members were constantly debating and arguing about his involvement in this new faith. Eventually, his peers had enough, and began to plot against him. We read of their scheming in Acts: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which [Stephen] spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at [Stephen], and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
The authorities ask Stephen to respond to these accusations. And he does, in a big way. Stephen says that through the ages people have rejected the prophets that God sent to reach them, and just so they rejected Jesus, God-come-to-earth to reach them. He doesn’t try to soften his words, and he doesn’t try to make friends. He doesn’t temper what he says, or recant any of his beliefs, even though he is clearly in trouble. Stephen just says what is on his heart. In the verse before where our passage today begins, we find the response of the synagogue leaders to Stephen’s testimony: “When they heard these things,” we read, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Instead of being scared by the group, Stephen is fortified by the vision of Jesus he has that starts our reading today. He tries to share his vision, but his words fall on unhearing ears. The men drag Stephen into the street, they throw their coats at the feet of a man named Saul, and they stone Stephen to death, literally pelting rocks at him until he dies. Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ on the cross, as he pleads for forgiveness for those who are putting him to death.
            Stephen, the first Christian we know of to give his life for his faith, was not one of the twelve, was not known for his preaching or leadership. He was just someone who was trying to serve others, and he was unwilling to say or do otherwise, even with the cost being his own life. The Greek word that gives us this word ‘martyr’ actually means ‘witness’ – like a witness in a trial. A witness is someone who says what they know, what they’ve seen and heard and experienced. We think of witnessing today in the church as going door to door talking about Jesus. But in the scriptures, witnessing was more like the legal kind of witnessing – just telling the truth. Stephen was a witness, a martyr, telling the truth about what he believed and why he was doing what he was.
When I was in college, I took a few psychology courses as part of my pre-theology major. I loved psychology. I loved particularly adolescent psychology, and driving my brother Todd crazy by telling him that his behaviors were typical adolescent behaviors. He didn’t like that very much. But I also remember clearly being intrigued by the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable, unsettled feeling your mind gets when there’s a gap or distortion or difference between what you believe should be true or feel should be true, and what you know is actually true. For a timely example:  a cult group predicts the end of the world. The end of the world does not arrive on schedule. But then the cult group seems more devoted than ever to its cause or purpose. This is because of cognitive dissonance – our minds are trying to compensate for the difference between what we think or want to be true and what is true, because our minds don’t like that gap. It doesn’t sit well with us. We try to get rid of any cognitive dissonance.
I’ve been thinking about how as people of faith we often experience cognitive dissonance – a gap between what we think we believe is true, and what is true. What we believe is true is what we think, the beliefs we say we hold, the views we have on issues and doctrines, our understanding of God. But what is true for our faith is our daily experience. What we actually do – that’s the concrete truth we experience. The dissonance comes because there is such a gap between what we say we believe, and what we actually do, between what we think is true, and what we experience as true.
There are healthier ways though of dealing with our cognitive dissonance than making our minds believe something we know to be false. For me, for example: I see a disparity between what I say I believe and what is really true according to what I do. I’m experiencing that cognitive dissonance. I say that addressing poverty is a huge justice issue that the gospels call us to give serious attention to – but if I don’t actually spend time serving the poor and building relationships, there’s a disconnect between my beliefs, and my actions. A dissonance. More than unsettling, that’s troubling to my spirituality, preventing my growth as a disciple. So I can deal with that in one of two ways: I can try and convince my mind that Jesus doesn’t really call us to serve the poor, or that giving a little here and a little there is really the kind of care for the least of these Jesus has in mind. Or, I can get my act together, and start building relationships, investing time and energy, and really serving those that Jesus spent so much of his time with. I would sum up our Christian spiritual journeys as a struggle to bring what we believe and what we actually do into harmony. Saying what we believe is the easy part. Doing it is the hard part.
Stephen was a man who had the courage to bring how he lived his life, what he did, in line with what he believed. He wouldn’t waver on either. Because of what he believed, he served God as best he could, with the gifts and talents he had. And because of what he believed, and how he lived, he wasn’t willing to separate his words and actions to make others more comfortable with him. It cost him his life. But I think if he had done otherwise, it would have cost him more – cost him his faith, his integrity, his discipleship. He placed a higher value on those things. Do we do the same? How much dissonance can we live with? What do you believe? What do you do? How much space is there between what you believe and what you do?
I think our journey as disciples is about taking steps to close the gap, to eliminate the spaces that we’ve created between what we believe and what we do. It isn’t an easy task. Like Stephen showed, it takes great courage, and sometimes great sacrifice. This kind of discipleship takes a lifetime to unfold, and can happen in steps that add up to great gifts, seen and unseen by us, always seen by God. Whatever it takes, despite failures and setbacks, despite challenges and obstacles, I think the struggle of discipleship is worth it. Psychologists might call it eliminating our cognitive dissonance. The scriptures, I think, describe it as the peace that passes our understanding. John Wesley might speak of it as things being well with your soul. Whatever you call it, I think we are called to strive after it, with courage, with hope, with God. Amen.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A, "Resurrection Responses: Thomas"

Sermon 5/1/11
John 20:19-31
Resurrection Responses: Thomas
            I know some people have been brought up, one way or another, in a spirituality that discourages asking questions, that looks on doubts and questions as disrespectful sometimes, or dangerous, or at least discouraged. But I consider myself pretty lucky not to have had that influence – I was encouraged, if anything, to ask questions about my faith. And  I was lucky to find people in my life that were willing to talk to me about my questions, to try to share their own answers, or, blessedly, to sometimes say the most honest words, the too-often underused words: I don’t know.
            I think our faith grows through our questions and doubts. At the least, our questions and doubts at least show we are interested and engaged. I would rather have a Bible Study group, for example, full of people with questions to discuss, rather than a room full of people who just want – or already know – the answers. And at the best, I think our questions can lead us deeper in our faith, lead us beyond a surface level faith into a real relationship with the living God who created our very questioning minds!
            I can point to my own life, my own faith questions, for some moments that were really pivotal, that could have led me in one direction or another, that really formed who I was, who I am. When I was little, old enough to write, but young enough to be using crayon to do so, my mom came into my room to tuck me in at night to find that I had written a note to God in red crayon. My note said something along the lines of: Dear God, You know I have many questions. Please write the answers here. And I left God the rest of the page blank for answers. Very thoughtful of me, right? My mom sat and talked with me, with a straight face even, and told me that sometimes, the best way to talk to God was to listen to God speaking to me right in my heart, in my mind. Of course, my mother tells me, she really wishes she had just left my paper be – after all, if I had such deep faith that God would leave me red crayon answers, maybe I would have woken up with some answers straight from the source! But the point is: when I was asking questions, my mother just helped me figure out the best way I could get them – by learning to listen for God's voice. She would do this again some years later, when I was asking questions about what happens when we die, and she encouraged me to start reading the Bible, and develop a more regular prayer life.
            When I was in sixth grade, and still attending the little country United Methodist Church in Westernville, I asked my Sunday School teacher a lot of questions. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask about dinosaurs – how could dinosaurs have been extinct millions of years before humans showed up, if the world was created in seven days? He answered that he thought maybe God's time was different than our time, that maybe our days and a day to God was different. I was intrigued by his answer, and grew up with the idea, then, that science and faith could work hand in hand, and not at cross-purposes.
When I was in Sunday School in junior high – and maybe our Sunday School teachers right now are starting to become thankful they never had me as a student – you might remember me telling you that it was in junior high that I became, well, obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar. And since I had a big crush on the actor playing Judas, I also became very intrigued by Judas. Was he in hell, even if he was part of the plan all along? The betrayal necessary for Jesus to fulfill what he seemed sure he must do? I asked my teacher, and she told me: Judas was in hell because he committed suicide. End of story. No room for conversation. I had a really hard time with her response. For Judas, for suicide, for God's love that keeps us in life and death. I wrote into a Christian youth magazine that I loved and asked the same questions. The editor wrote back a full page letter, sharing his belief in God's inexhaustible grace, in only God knowing us enough to judge our lives. Well, you know that I still love Superstar, I still have a special place in my heart for Judas – but you might not know that I went on to write my senior religion paper in college about Judas too.
I don’t mean to make this sermon just a trip down memory lane, entertaining though that may be for all of us! But I mean to point out – questions and doubts – they can be, when handled with care – doorways, openings, pathways to a faith, a relationship, a spiritual richness that is yet unknown and unimagined.
Today, we encounter a gospel lesson that focuses on the most famous doubter of all, one forever known by his act of questioning: doubting Thomas. So few of the twelve disciples are singled out in the gospels. We know quite a bit about Peter, but about the others, hardly anything. And for Thomas, virtually the only mention of him in the gospels is this scene today. Thomas doesn’t believe Jesus is raised until he sees Jesus with his own eyes, and he’s forever after known as Doubting Thomas.
            Our text opens on the evening of Easter Sunday. At this point, only Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. Peter and another disciple had seen the empty tomb, but left before seeing Jesus. Mary had told them that she’d seen Jesus, but we see today that her news apparently had little effect on them. The disciples are locked up in the house where they’re staying, afraid because of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They’re not rejoicing. They’re scared. But suddenly, Jesus appears, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, confirming that he is the very Jesus they saw die. He again blesses them with peace, and tells them they will be sent as he was sent. He breathes on them, and speaks of the Holy Spirit, and gives them authority.
            But Thomas isn’t there with them for some reason. The disciples share what they have seen – that they’ve seen Jesus. But Thomas says that unless he sees for himself, he won’t believe. A week later, the disciples are again in the house together, this time with Thomas too. Jesus again appears, with words of peace. And this time, Thomas sees for himself. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
            And so Thomas, then nicknamed “the Twin,” finds himself a new nickname: Doubting Thomas. Peter didn’t have this same bad luck – he denied Jesus in the critical moment, but we know so much more about him and so we’re able to see a better picture of the ‘full Peter’. We know he’s more than that one event. We know him as Peter the Rock of the Church, not as Peter the Abandoner of Jesus. But we don’t have anything much else about Thomas in the Bible. Some of his writings do exist – there is more to know about Thomas – but these writings are not part of the canon – the official collection – of scripture we call the Bible. So for us, Thomas’ whole discipleship is summed up in this one event – Doubting Thomas. Imagine if your life was summed up in a label like that, based on one event, one action you took, one question you asked. What word would describe you fairly? Fully?           
Besides, “doubting” is hardly a label that Thomas deserves more than any of the others – he was the only one asked to believe for sure that Jesus was alive without the benefit of seeing him. Would the others have been convinced without seeing Jesus themselves? Well, Peter and another disciple had already been to the tomb, as we read last week, and they were still confused and locked in fear in this room until Jesus appeared before them. Apparently, they weren’t so full of faith that they were ready to venture out of hiding. I think given the chance, we would have seen all of the remaining eleven disciples do just what Thomas did – ask for some more convincing proof.
            Importantly, though, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind Thomas’ doubt, as long as that’s not where Thomas ends up. I think we’re a bit afraid of doubt, or how God will react to our doubts and questions about faith. There’s so much we don’t understand about God or how God works in the world or about what God wants us to do. But sometimes, we’re afraid to admit that we don’t get it. Maybe we’re afraid that God will punish us for having doubts, or that we’re the only ones with doubts. But this passage, Thomas’ encounter with Jesus should put our fears to rest. Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed. But he doesn’t say Thomas is bad or wrong or a failure because he has doubts. In fact, Jesus just gives Thomas what he needs to move from doubt to faith. He shows Thomas his wounds, a reassurance, and brings him peace, a comfort, just as he did for others. Like so many people have in my own life, Jesus just used Thomas’ questions to move him, and the rest of the disciples, to a deeper understanding of how God was at work.           
            Easter isn’t just a one day celebration for people of faith. It isn’t over. Christians call themselves Easter people, because we’re always people who believe in new life and resurrection, every single week. But we’re also in the midst of the Easter Season – the great fifty days of Easter. This season goes from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost in May. It represents the time that Jesus spent with the disciples after the resurrection, preparing them to do the work he’d set out for them. They were filled with doubts and fears, and worries, and a lack of understanding, even still, even after the resurrection. But they believed in God, in Christ’s ability to shape and guide them. So whether you are the one asking questions, or the one trying to open a door for a curious mind, know that God always meets us where we are, and leads us on.