What claims ownership over our lives? A sermon on being imprinted

Aldersgate United Methodist Church, North Reading MA

Sunday October 19, 2014- 19th Sunday after Pentecost/Ordinary 29

On Being Imprinted

Matthew 22:15-22

It turns out that buying a couch justly is harder than I thought. All I wanted to do was purchase a simple couch. One of my housemates moved out, and took the couch with her. We thought about buying one on Craigslist, but then everyone got all squeamish about possible bed bugs since they’re not uncommon in upholstered furniture in the city. We looked for a second hand couch through friends, but all of their couches were too big to fit up the stairs to our second floor apartment. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. But if I bought a cheap sofa, I would be benefiting from other humans paid sub-standard wages working in unsafe conditions make cheap sofas. And I’ve worked on toxic chemical policy long enough to be suspicious of the foam rubber, the toxic fabric treatments and treated woods. And then I missed the tax-free weekend for a better price, but I don’t really believe that tax-free weekend is good public policy. As much as I try to use my money in ways that are just, I am a hypocrite if I say I use money justly Every possible decision seemed morally compromised.. Either expensive and non-toxic and humanely produced or inexpensive and toxic and inhuman. And to think this long about a couch is ridiculous and a waste. It’s all so compromised and boring and utterly intractable.

All our structures are compromised. All our exchanges are tinged with injustice. It is really hard to make just decisions in a broken economic system. The gospel text from Matthew has Jesus showing those around him just how compromised everyone is within imperial economic systems.

It’s the Tuesday of Holy Week, in an occupied land. There’s talk of a Jewish uprising against the occupying Roman power. Jesus has come into Jerusalem in a triumph parade on Palm Sunday that looked more like a circus show and political farce than the royal entry of a savior. Yesterday, he was flipping the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Tomorrow, he will be arrested. But today, the religious and political leaders are looking to entrap him, to hear him say something so scandalous that he can be arrested. They stand in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Two parties who want nothing to do with one another, two groups that are usually fighting against one another- the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees are the Jewish religious leaders who don’t like the Roman rule, but aren’t acting out like the Zealots. The Herodians are Jews who have teamed up with Rome. They find a common enemy in Jesus.

The start with flattery, before they pounce: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” There are other people hanging around listening, Jews from all over the occupied territories who have come into Jerusalem for the Passover. They push forward to hear. Like a zinger question on live tv during election season, this is good theatre.

It’s a trap. If Jesus says it’s lawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Pharisees and the crowd incensed over paying more taxes to an occupying power. If Jesus says it’s unlawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Herodians loyal to Rome. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. We translate the word as ‘tax’ here, but in the original Greek it’s κῆνσον or “census.” “Show me the coin used for the census.” Remember that line from the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem because of the census, all the world shall be counted, but as all the people are being taxed by the occupying power. They have to go to their hometown because they didn’t have any land to tax. The census wasn’t just about counting people, it was about finding out how much money there was in the occupied territory and then extracting the money. People too poor to be taxed for their landholdings were called “Capite censi” or those counted by head. These are the lowest class people. The economic system is utterly corrupt that there are people taxed not for what they own or earn, but simply for being. The Pharisees and Herodians are asking Jesus if it’s lawful for the poorest to pay a tax simply for being. Say Yes, and the poor revolt. Say No, and the occupying power crushes you. This kinda question that will get you killed.

But Jesus turns the conversation around, “Show me the coin used for the census,” Jesus says in vs 19. It’s more than a children’s sermon object lesson. One of the Pharisees reaches into his pockets and flips Jesus a coin. (Flip to Rachel?) “Whose head is this?” The Emperor’s, they respond. Jesus asks. “And whose title?” The inscription reads “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Divine Augustus

Standing in the Temple, the central and holiest place for Jewish religious life, the Pharisee tosses Jesus a Roman coin. Here’s the problem: Jews aren’t supposed to have objects with graven images, remember- it’s in the Ten Commandments! And especially in the ritually pure Temple! They’re stuck. They’re complicit. The Pharisees, the Herodians, they are all caught in the perverse economic system of imperial rule. No decision is a good one in this setting. With a coin in your pocket, everywhere you go, the Emperor goes with you. Every exchange you make, you reaffirm the power of the empire. And the emperor is claiming divinity? What do you pledge allegiance to? God or Empire?

This is how dangerous it is to confront the domination of money and empire in our lives. Jesus is talking about things bigger and more complex than whether or not to buy a couch on tax-free weekend.  After spending a week with this story, I’m less convinced that this is a passage about taxes and more convinced that this is about idolatry and the imperial power money has over our lives. How can you pledge allegiance to God when the empire is calling itself holy?

When I was in 6th grade, a new girl transferred into our middle school from Ohio. She seemed nice, pretty with long brown hair and bright blue eyes. She should have blended in easily with all the other kids trying blend in until we were an undifferentiated mass of beige. But she stood out. When we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, placed our right hand over our heart and chanted in rhythm- “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America…” Rebecca just stood there. Her hand didn’t move. Her lips didn’t move. She stood quietly, looking straight ahead. It took a full decade for me to realize that Rebecca was raised in a community of Mennonites, a tradition of Christians that rejected infant baptism, dating to the 16th century in Europe. Mennonites are so convicted by the Lordship of Christ, about God’s sovereignty over everything, that they do not pledge their allegiance to anyone or anything but God.

Most of us don’t go that far. We just go along with our coins in our pockets that proclaim “In God We trust,” and our hands over our heart. And in a verse that has confused the Church for millennia, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” as if the world could be nicely sorted into two baskets: Caesar’s stuff over here and God’s stuff over here.

When Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” in verse 20, another way to translate that is “Whose image?” In Greek, the word is ikon-εἰκὼν . The coins are imprinted with the image of the emperor. Give the things with the Emperor’s image on them back to the Emperor. Icon, image. Same word as Genesis 1:27 where at the beginning of Creation humans are “made in the ikon of God.”

And what is made in the image of God?  Everything. Every human being. Everything imprinted with the image of God, indelibly imprinted with the image of God. You, you, you are the ikon of God. Whatever else has been stamped on you, you are forever imprinted with the image of God. What are the all-encompassing claims of ownership in our own lives? What demands our loyalty, our sacrifice, our allegiance? my calendar? my checkbook? my status? my nation? fear? Whatever demands that you pledge allegiance, whatever power and control the money in your pocket exerts, however your life has become ruled by money or lack of money, you are made in the image of God. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, you are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. In the middle of Jesus’s final week, when everything was on the line, when the temptation to trust powers and idols other than the God who shows him to the cross were at the highest, Jesus said it’s all God’s. All of this is God’s. Give Caesar his cut, fine. But Give God everything. Everything. God the toddler pointing around to all of creation and saying “mine, mine, mine, mine. All mine.”

The temptation is real to place our allegiance in other gods. But there is good news in this story. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, however strong a hold the empire has on your life as we live in broken economic systems, you and every one else in all Creation are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. May it be so for your this day. Amen.

 

 

Charge to the Pastor

photo-3Charge to the Pastor by the Rev. Laura Everett

Installation of Rev. Gregory Morisse as Senior Pastor

Plymouth Church in Framingham MA, United Church of Christ

Sunday October 19, 2014

“I have but one single charge to give you. One only, because it is first of all, and comprehends all. My brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ. Among this dear people, with the sentiments of the grandest Apostle, determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ. As you walk these streets, truly say, “I live, nevertheless Christ liveth in me.” As you stand in this sacred place with all boldness say to the people, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” Christ! My brother. Daily, hourly mediate upon Him. Begin every morning with Him, and let the evening dew find you where the morning glories left you. Study to know Christ- feed upon Him, breathe His spirit, digest His words, and be completely absorbed in Him. Be sure before you undertake anything that you are in Christ. Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform a duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ. Abide in Christ, and make His spirit and example your whole armor of life. I charge you to be completely filled with Christ, because then you will be perfectly equipped for your work.”

So charged the Rev. E. E. Lamb to the Rev Joel M. Seymour at his installation over the Congregational Church in Brooklfield, MA on October 7, 1873. Rev. Lamb was so convinced that this charge to the pastor was true that he recycled the text and gave the same exact charge to a different pastor again the next year to a Rev. Charles R. Seymour, at his installation over the North Church in Newburyport MA, on October 8, 1874.

My Brother Gregory, we stand in a long line of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and ministers of the Gospel in every age who charge one another to faithfulness as they take on leadership for the Church. What you do here, in this place, is utterly predictable and totally unique, an ancient practice made new again and again. We inherit the same joys and perils. And to do this work well, to lead well: “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For here is the danger: You can get filled with other things. Other gods can creep in and become Lord of your life. Your calendar can become lord. Your full church program year can become lord. Your busyness and your strategies and your plans can become lord. You can lean on your own impressive understanding. You can be lured into believing that productivity is the same as faithfulness. And you, in particular, run the risk of being so productive and thorough in your ministerial duties that even Jesus Christ himself can’t get a meeting on your calendar until Feb 16, 2015 from 6:45- 7:15pm between the Governing Council meeting and Fall Fair planning team. Gregory, for you to lead well, you must allow yourself to be led by God. You must do what you need to do so that you are on the firm foundation, for all this is first Christ’s work. “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.” I charge you to guard your time and energy and heart so that you may be filled with Christ.

Presbyterian pastor Euguene Peterson warns, “Before long we find that we are program directors in a flourishing business. We spend our time figuring out ways to attractively display god-products. We become skilled at pleasing the customers. Before we realize what has happened, the mystery and love and majesty of God, to say nothing of the tender and delicate subtleties of souls, are obliterated by the noise and frenzy of the religious marketplace.”(173) “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For some of us, to empty ourselves so that we might be filled with Christ is an unlearning. St Mary Oliver of Provincetown writes “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray.” To be filled with Christ, you may have to unlearn some things, tear some words from your tongue. I know your Plymouth Church Covenant boldly proclaims since 1701 that you will be “doers of the Word and not only hearers.” Which is all well and good and necessary in a world convinced the intuitional Church cannot bear the gregarious love of God, but guard yourselves that you are not moving so quickly do-ing that the Word of God cannot be heard in you as you wiz by to the next program. We live in a highly competitive state, in a town with lots of ambition, in a time when the Church is anxious, and that stew of anxiety prods us to do, do, do. Brother Gregory, I charge you “Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform any duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ.”

For us who pastor, when first we are in Christ, there is such joy and satisfaction in this work. Rev. Lamb again said in his charge: “In your chosen labors you will have nights, but he will give you glorious mornings; you will have frowning storms, but He will span them with rainbows; you will have thorns, but the blessed Husbandman will plant flowers between. Through all the drudgery and suffering of your work He will so dignify it, that you would not exchange this pulpit for imperial grandeurs.” This work is good and holy and glorious when we are set right. Brother, I charge you above all else, before any work or worship or program begins, be in Christ Jesus. The rest will sort itself out.

A blessing upon you this day, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God Mother of us all. Amen

Teaching Twitter skeptics, a template

#FirstTweetToday was an experiment that seemed to mostly work. I often teach “Intro to Social Media” workshops in Church settings. Today, with the Louisiana Interchurch Council Board, I experimented with teaching people how to tweet using a paper template. I figured that folks from a paper generation would be more comfortable drafting their #FirstTweet by hand and then could begin to imagine actually tweeting. It mostly worked. People got the hang of #hashtags and @handles. If you want to try  it in your own setting, here’s a template of 140 character Practice Tweet. If you use it, let me know how it goes!

Practice Tweet

#FirstTweet

On Studying Torah during War*

On Studying Torah during War*

Jerusalem street art

I am supposed to be listening studiously to a lecture about God and the righteous behavior of Job and Noah. But I can’t keep focused. My eyes won’t stay in my Bible. Pointed to ancient texts, I keep looking for “breaking news” on my computer screen. We are studying Torah during war.

Just before we arrived, the tragically constant smoldering between Israel and Palestine caught fire and spread. Christian leaders from across the United States, professors, deans, and Church executives, have spent the last 10 days at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem studying God and Judaism. The Christian Leadership Initiative invites Christian professionals to spend a year studying Judaism and the state of Israel with Jewish teachers. We have much to learn from one another, and the relationship between some American Christians and Jews has been seriously strained in recent years. I believe it an act of good will and continuing hope in our relationship that American Jewish Committee invited us, and that all 20 of us Christians came, maybe not knowing all of what we signed up for.

But it has been hard to study. Our first day introduction to the Shalom Hartman Institute included a visit to the bomb shelter in our building so we would know where to go should a Red Alert sound. And yet, we studied with the knowledge that in some places, when bombs fall, there are Palestinians and Israelis with no place to go.

Ideas that are abstract in our ancient texts draw uncomfortably near. We study and debate stories about the Israelites as a chosen people, inheritors of a land, even soldiers as are called up to defend the land. Late Thursday night, we learned of a ground invasion of Israeli forces into Gaza. And then next day we were to put on our “Shabbos best” to pray with gracious Shira Hadasha, an amazing”Orthodox, Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem” and greet the holy rest of Shabbat with joy. I found it easy to pray the Psalms with the congregation at Shira Hadasha, but there was no joy in me. I felt like an ungrateful guest to my hosts’s sacred tradition. Saying “Shabbat Shalom” (peaceful Sabbath) seemed like a lie when there was no peace in me or in this contested land.

On one hand, studying Torah during war is an utterly ridiculous thing to do. How self-indulgent to better myself with the safety of a secure shelter when others are struggling just to survive! How privileged to busy my hands with typing up Midrash notes while other hands not far away are bandaging up the innocent wounded!

On the other hand, studying Torah during war might be the most important thing we could be doing.  Again and again when considering the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, we heard how removed each side is from the other’s narratives. Israeli negotiator Tal Becker spoke to us about  the necessity of listening to the other’s narrative. When asked what concessions were needed, Becker felt that Palestinians need to come to terms with the reality of the Jewish connection to the land and the Jewish identity as a people with a right to a nation and not just as a religion. On the other side,
Becker felt that Israelis need to truly hear the Palestinian narrative of suffering and removal, and not correct it. By studying Torah, we Christians were stretching to learn a Jewish narrative, from Jews about the Jewish people. We are working to unlearn centuries of Christian supercessionist readings and take Jewish texts on their own terms.

For Jews, studying Torah is holy work. Studying Torah is worship of God. Studying Torah involves, even requires debate. I have “holy envy” for the Jewish rabbinic tradition that preserves contrary opinions on the very page of the Talmud. It is an honor, a prayerful thing to study Torah. As my eyes wander off the Torah and onto yet another news screen, I am pulled away again from this holy work.

I have no illusions that my prayers sent up from Jerusalem offer peacemaking magic or my Torah study changes nations. On its own, our study of Torah won’t do a thing to bring about peace between two traumatized people.  But even more so during war,  I am convinced that we must learn one another’s narratives from the inside. We may not ultimately believe these narratives, but we need to hear and understand them. We study Torah and learn the Jewish connection to this land and we listen to the Arab cab driver who stops the meter and drives us to the house from which his family was forcibly removed. It is a spiritual discipline to hear and sit with the grief.

I am a pilgrim to Jerusalem, a Christian coming to my holy city for the first time at the invitation of my Jewish colleagues during the holy month of Ramadan. Bishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem said “All Christians must come here first and foremost as pilgrims…Pilgrims here do not bring decisions with them. They come here to seek prayerfully the decisions God wants them to make. And God will always surprise us. God has not finished with us or with our Church yet” (Bishop’s address, June 2008). I am doing my best to be here not with decisions or answers, but to listen.

 

* As of this writing , I haven’t left Jerusalem yet. Our group has been delayed in our departure due to the FAA travel ban out of Ben Gurion.  I’ve been stirred up and need time to settle before I fully understand this whole experience and what God wants me to learn from studying Torah during war. I think it will take years.  But I’m convinced that we need to share our wanderings and not just our destinations. So take these words as provisional, as a “living blog” like a “living Torah,” and grant that I may need to change my thoughts and words on this later. Also, I’m a new student of Judaism, and may have gotten some things wrong here, so I invite your correction and clarification. 

Consider the Sparrow: A sermon on fear & pain

Sunday June 22, 2013 Trinity Episcopal Church, Milford MA

 

sparrow tattoo by Darlene DiBona at Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoos in Jamaica Plain: http://www.pumpkintattoo.com/darlene/

Matthew 10: 24-39

Even before his team had played a game, the head coach of the US Men’s Soccer team had gotten himself into trouble. Jurgen Klinsmann , a native of Germany, but the US Men’s coach was remarkably candid last week: “You have to be realistic. Every year we are getting stronger,” Klinsmann said. ” For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me.” And correct him they did. The media jumped all over Klinsmann for his lack of hope, his lack of optimism, his failure to embrace an American ethos of grit and determination. Perhaps the strongest rebuke came from Landon Donovan, a major US player Klinsmann left off the World Cup team. Donovan said, “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen. As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.” Klinsmann’s words were no accident, no slip up during the interview. Last December, he told the NY Times magazine, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”

Jesus would have made a horrible soccer coach (or maybe he’d just be a bad American soccer coach). This passage today from the Gospel according to Matthew is essentially a pep talk to the disciples, a pre-game speech to his team. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus summoning the twelve disciples and giving them authority to cast out and heal. He directs them to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Jesus gets them ready for the game, but tells them there are no extras, no safety nets, no bag for your journey, no extra pair of sandals. And then it turns a bit darker. Klinsmann said to the press, “you have to be realistic.” And Jesus is realistic. He looks ahead, knowing the kinds of subversive, counter-cultural mission of the Gospel, and tells the disciples what to expect.

Jesus begins by telling the disciples that they will be maligned, as he has been maligned. Jesus tells them that there will be those who try to kill the body. Jesus says this mission will not bring peace but conflict. World’s. Worst. Pep-talk. You have to be realistic.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we said all the things that we fear are true that we don’t say? That maybe you’ll graduate, but you’ll be in debt and can’t find a job. That maybe you’ll find a job but you won’t be doing what you love, or you won’t be making enough money. Maybe you’ll fall in love, but one of you will die first or your marriage will end with infidelity. Maybe you’ll get married, but you’ll struggle to conceive, or you’ll get pregnant when you didn’t mean to. That children and family and friends will break your heart and disappoint you. That a son will be set against his father, “daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:34). That people you love will make hurtful decisions and you’ll make hurtful decisions too. That people you love will get sick and die before you can get there to visit them and say all the things you meant to say a year ago. That one day, you’ll be the last one alive and all the names of your friends will be crossed out of your address book.

We don’t say these sorts of fearful things when we look ahead. But Jesus does, he points out the conflict and the grief that is to come. And he’s as direct and unflinching as a German soccer coach, saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Jesus warns of conflict ahead, conflict between fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, friends and foes. In my experience, when I get fearful, I get combative. When I’m worried that there isn’t enough, I get snippy with those around me. My colleague Courtney withdraws like a turtle into her shell when she gets afraid to avoid the coming conflict. Another colleague told me she gets “controlling and distracted and self blaming” when she’s afraid. We aren’t our best selves when we are afraid. We turn in. We seize up. We arm up. We run away. You know these responses, freeze or fight or flight, when we are afraid. When we are afraid, we do not live as the beloved children of God we are called to be.

These are hard words from Jesus to the disciples. And they are understandably afraid of what awaits them. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and saying all sorts of cranky things after he woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping mat and there was no honey left for his tea that morning. But I’m more inclined to think that Jesus is being realistic- unflinchingly, painfully realistic.

He is preparing the disciples for his capture, humiliation, torture and death. He is preparing them for the possibility of a similar fate. Jesus tells the disciples of his own defamation, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” And maybe, just maybe by naming their fears outloud, they can be released from their fears.

Three times in this short passage Jesus addresses their fear. In verse 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered; and nothing secret that will not become known.” In Verse 28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” In Verse 31 “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Jesus’ hard words about the future are not a slip up, or a mistake. And his warnings are not without hope. The strange and glorious part, is that this hope, even in the face of real, hard, fearful words, comes in the form of a bird.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” proclaim verse 32.

Why a sparrow? What’s so special about a sparrow that God would be so attentive? Well, it turns out, there’s nothing special about a sparrow. They are utterly common. Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue just wrote a book called “Consider the Birds: A Provocative guide to Birds of the Bible.” Sparrows were the chicken McNuggets of 1st century Palestine. As Blue describes, “sparrows were stripped of their feathers, threaded onto long strings, or jammed onto wooden skewers and laid out on trays a gray and lifeless to be sold in the ancient Middle Eastern marketplace as cheap food- two for a penny according to Matthew…They are ubiquitous… Field guides describe them as bland, dingy and dull, with songs that are monotonous and grating. The Egyptian hieroglyph based on the sparrow had no phonetic value. It was used in words to indicate small, narrow, or bad. In ancient Sumerian cuneiform writing, the sparrow was the symbol for ‘enemy.” (129).

A bird worth less than a penny, this is the symbol for all that God sees and knows. Blue sees God’s attentiveness to this disposable bird as a sign of “God’s profuse care.” Debbie Blue writes “God cares for what the world considers insignificant. This is all over the text: the weak and the poor, the widows, the broken. Jesus eats with the common people. Our eyes are so often on something with a little more prestige… We desperately don’t want to be common… We are hardly able to convince ourselves that God is unlike us in this. But the Scripture keeps pressing us to hear this: God loves what is ubiquitous. ” Even the sparrow. Even you. Even me. And all of the common, unremarkable, fearful and ordinary things in our lives. The profligate grace of God is so thorough-going, so complete, so all-encompassing that even a fallen sparrow is noticed, so that we don’t have to be afraid of going at it alone.

I had a pretty hard week- A week ago Sunday, one of my mentors died after a very short and aggressive cancer. At 53 and just coming into the prime of her academic career, it seemed especially cruel to have her dead so young. It was a haul to drive to Montreal for the funeral in the middle of the week and disrupted my full work schedule. People were cranky with me for not doing the things I said I would do, but couldn’t get done. But the promise is this: It’s not that we avoid the hard times or the pain of living in line with the Gospel, it’s that we do not go through this apart from God. Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God. Maybe you had a hard week too. Maybe you’ve had a hard month, or a hard year. But not one single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice, and you, beloved are of more value than many sparrows.

It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. My friend has this beautiful tattoo of a sparrow on her arm. It’s her reminder of this promise from Matthew and of the promise of the gospel hymn “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” I can “sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” It’s her reminder of Hamlet’s words to Horatio in Act 5, Scene 2:

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Are we there yet? A sermon for the Ascension

Are we there yet? A sermon for the Ascension

Sunday June 1, 2014- Lutheran Church of Framingham

 

Acts 1: 6-14 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

Lutheran Framingham sign

Are we there yet? Soon.

Are we there now? It’s going to take longer than that.

Is that now? No, later.

When is later? We’ll be there in two hours.

How long is 2 hours? 120 minutes.

Did we wait long enough? No, in two hours.

How long is two hours? 4 Dora the Explorers, or 1 showing of Frozen plus a little bit, or two services at a Lutheran church or one at a Baptist.

So now? How about now? Are we there yet? How about now? You told me we’d be there soon!

This is how the Book of Acts begins, with the disciples gathered around the resurrected Christ asking “Now?” Actually, it’s less of a new beginning and more of a continuation, a second volume following the end of the Gospel of Luke. Luke ends with the Easter resurrection, and the resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples. Acts is a new chapter that carries all the promise and hope of the end of Luke. Expectations are high. The disciples, the hearers of these stories, we readers, expect God to do something. Acts is the sequel to the epic story in Luke. And the sequel begins with the disciples asking “So now what?”

Verse 6 begins, “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now? Is it now? Is this the time that you promised? Like small children whose little mush brains can’t yet understand the difference between now and two weeks from now, the disciples ask now? How about now? Is it now? We’ve heard the disciples ask this before- is now the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?

Not now, Jesus says. Later or Soon. Doesn’t really matter. In verse 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. The disciples ask Jesus a question about when, but he answers a question about how. In verse 8, Jesus says “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Not yet, but soon. Jesus promises them that they will be witnesses to the whole world, but starting first right where they are in Jerusalem.

Today is a change of seasons. We’ve basked in the glow of the resurrected Christ in Eastertide. We’ve just celebrated the 40 days of Easter. Next Sunday, we’ll join with Christians around the world to celebrate Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit. This past Thursday was the Ascension- when we read this text about Jesus rising up, leaving the disciples in body but promising the Holy Spirit. We tend to talk about Pentecost as the birthing of the Church. But maybe we’re a bit pre-mature. Maybe Jesus’ departure is what prods us to begin as Church.

Ascension holds a funny place in our spiritual lives. Our creeds make sure to mention it and early Christians seemed to think it important: On the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In some churches, if you lit the Pascal Candle on Easter, you extinguish it on the Ascension. But we don’t have a ton of traditions built up around it. There’s not Ascension Day release of balloons, or flying of kites. There’s no Ascension Day pageant where we dress up in white robes. No Ascension Day gifts or traditional meringue cookies and angel food cake. Not much of communal practice of hiking up a mountain. It’s a weird holiday, a time to celebrate when Jesus leaves us and before the Holy Spirit shows up? A time left where we may feel, well bereft. No wonder the disciples are left staring up at the sky, asking what the?

But now, right now, on Ascension, we are in between. The problem with being in between is that it’s an uncomfortable place, an unstable place. It could be good, it could be tense, because we just don’t know what comes next. We are in the waiting.

You know this waiting. You live in this in-between too. Waiting for the grade, the acceptance letter, the rejection letter, the biopsy results. Waiting to be fired when you know it’s coming. Waiting for a baby to be born. Waiting to be old enough to do that next big thing, waiting to die. Waiting in to see if the money comes in. Waiting to find out what will happen to us.

After Jesus gave them the promise of the Holy Spirit, Verse 9 says “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” We can understand why their eyes are fixed on the sky where Jesus just ascended; it’s kind of a ridiculous scene. But the disciples get caught in a sort of spiritual rubbernecking, keeping their eyes on what just happened and not where they’re supposed to be going back to Jerusalem. You who travel on the Mass Pike, or Route 9 know this temptation- something going on in the other lane that catches your eye. Ruber-necking is what happens when you are going one way and your eyes are looking back. The disciples get caught looking up when they’re supposed to be heading out.

Jesus could have gone up, and the Holy Sprit could have come down, a sort of Trinitiarian cosmic elevator swap or tag-team handoff. But that’s not what happens. “To use the language of the theologian Lieven Boeve, the ascension “interrupts” the story, and prevents closure.” There’s an interruption. There’s a pause. A break. A lacuna. A breath in-between the words. We are in the space between.

In music composition, a lacuna is the negative space in between the music, an intentional pause that creates both peace and tension at the same time. We don’t know how long that lacuna will last, but we know something more will come.

Look at the disciples as they return home to Jerusalem in verse 12. The lacuna isn’t devoid of action, but preparatory. They devote themselves to prayer. They are getting nimble, getting ready for the unknown next.

The Ascension is where God’s people wait and learn to be responsive. If we let it, the Ascension teaches us to be expectant, not anxious. To be agile, nimble- not exactly words I often think of when I think of church. Ascension invites us to be ready to go where the Spirit sends us next, to stop staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet ascending into heaven and be Christ’s hands and feet ourselves. The promise is big- you will be my witness to the ends of the earth! But let’s start first back at home in Jerusalem. First go home and prepare. Go home and wait. Go home and pray.

Church, I think you feel this lacuna. We are inbetween. You are inbetween. We are somewhere between the time when Church was a given in people’s lives and whatever will come next. We are between what is, and what will come. And our God has not abandoned the Church universal, or abandoned the Lutheran Church of Framingham.

This waiting can be uneasy. We want the silence to stop, the music to resolve, the lacuna to finish, the Holy Spirit to come. But we are in the waiting, the preparation, exactly where God needs us to be, as strong as our urge is to flee the waiting. The Quakers have the term that helps them resist the urge while acknowledging it: “outrunning one’s guide.*”

Now, I’m not a runner and in no danger of outrunning anyone. And as much as I love the Church, the Church is rarely an early adapter. We’re not often in danger of moving too quickly. If anything, the Church is often in danger of moving too slowly! But we can be impatient. We can confuse action for wisdom. We can confuse frenetic, anxious movement for faithfulness. We can get our eyes fixed on what’s above us, or behind us, and forget that God goes before us. The Ascension teaches us expectant waiting, holy preparation.

The British Quaker John Woolman, who preached across the colonies in the mid 1700’s, tells his story of “Outrunning one’s guide” like this:

One day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up and said some words in a meeting; but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me. Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress He had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence; my mind became calm and quiet, and I was truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for His mercies. About six weeks after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting, in which I found peace. Being thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and which taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to His flock.

May it be so for us, Amen.

* massive hat tip to my Quaker friends on Facebook and Twitter who helped me with the idea of “outrunning one’s guide.” Thanks!

 

 

Ye Olde Annual Easter Grass Rant, now with Artisanal Grass

Ye Olde Annual Easter Grass Rant

I try to stay fairly positive in my social media posture, but there’s something about Easter Grass that drives me absolutely mad. Forgive the rant or revel in it, your choice. 

I HATE Easter grass. It is the work of the Devil, if there is such a thing. If there is such a thing, the Devil created Easter Grass. Easter grass represents the worst of who we are:

  • Easter grass is a simulacrum of actual grass. It pretends to be grass, with its neon green color and stringy shape. But it is not grass. Psalm 37 speaks of  the wicked who “fade like the grass” yet Easter Grass will not fade. 
  • Easter grass is a petro-chemical version of actual grass. What is local and indigenous, we make with foreign oil and the obligation to spend more limited resources to ship it across the country.
  • Easter grass takes what is natural and makes it toxic. Instead of the good grass that springs from the earth, we use foreign oil to make it, fill it with endocrin disruptors and give it to our children while their young bodies are still forming.
  • Easter grass makes uniform what the good Creation make variable. Easter grass reduces all the variety of grass (Rye, Kentucky Blue, Bahia, Fescue & St. Augustine) into the same bloody piece of plastic.
  • Easter grass manages crass commercialization of something that grows wild.
  • Easter grass kills the very nature it pretends to symbolize Birds are attracted to the shimmery plastic, they line their nests with it, eat it and die.
  • Easter grass claims to represent Easter, the holiday otherwise  known as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet nowhere in Scripture does Easter grass exist.
  • Easter grass gets everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And when you find it under your couch cushion on the 4th of July or mid-December, you will not think fondly of this as a sign of death and resurrection. No, you will shake your first and vow, “Never again with the flipping Easter grass!” Forget tulips, Easter grass represents total depravity.

And new to the list this year,  an entry from Whole Foods:IMG_8313

  • This year in an attempt to smother us with preciousness, Whole Foods has rolled out its own Easter Grass “alternative.” As far as I can tell, this is not ironic. For $6.99 ( spotted a pre-Easter sale of $5.99), Whole Foods will sell you FOUR ounces of  “Tim’s Real Easter Basket Grass”  an organic, Vermont grown hay to line your Easter basket. In either an act of beguiling genius or total ridiculousness, Whole Foods will now sell you the very thing that you can get for free, but in a retro-cardbord box. Now we can feel virtuous by buying our way towards Easter.