Sunday, May 28th, 2017 – Sermon on Acts 1:6-14

Audio will be uploaded shortly.

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?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 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? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. 

On January 5th, St. John’s member Milo Quinnell died at the age of 88. While it was a peaceful and love-filled death, with his family by his side, it was also quite unexpected after some medical complications.

Some of you knew Milo and some of you didn’t, but he was a loveable human being with a heart-warming grin and quiet humor that was pleasant and comforting to be around.

Well, this past week, I was out to the house to visit Milo’s wife, Elouise. We did what we normally do, which is sit at the kitchen table, by the window looking out at the birds and the newly planted fields, catching up on the ins and outs of life. The kids, the grandkids, the graduations and the birthdays.

But as we sat there, I noticed a picture in the kitchen I had never seen before. Either it had been there for years or it was brand new. Either way, it caught me off guard and, for a moment, took my breath away.

FullSizeRenderHere is the picture. And as you can see, it is the picture of a flag pole with the flag at half-staff and three people standing around it, with their necks craning toward the sky.

As it turns out, this photo was taken on January 5th, the day Milo died. The family had just returned home from the hospital. Milo was a veteran and so in honor of him, Elouise wanted the flag on their property to fly at half-staff. But the flag itself was quite tattered. She had a new one to use – so that day three of the grandchildren were taught how to properly raise a new flag. By unfolding it out at the pole, without letting it touch the ground, and then raising it all the way up to the top, before lowering it half-way, in honor of Milo.

And with those three grandchildren looking upward, perhaps just to the flag, perhaps to the heavens too, wondering about Milo and death and the great beyond, someone thought to capture that moment in what I think is a remarkable photo.

Now the reason this photo took my breath away is because I’ve had the Acts reading rattling around in my head all week. And as soon as I saw that photo of those boys, standing there, looking upward toward heaven, I couldn’t help but think about that scene with the disciples, standing there looking upward as Jesus ascends toward heaven.

The story we just heard from Acts is the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day, if you will, which the Christian calendar always recognizes 40 days after Easter, which just so happens to have been this past Thursday. But since most of us weren’t in worship on Thursday, because there wasn’t any worship here on Thursday, we get the story today.

So, it’s the beginning of the book of Acts, which is sort of like the sequel, or the continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has died on the cross, been raised from the dead, and now according to Acts, has been appearing to the disciples for 40 days and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. And now everyone is gathered together and the disciples ask Jesus a question. And if you listen closely, I think you can hear their desperation. “Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We’ve asked questions like that, haven’t we?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll get a second interview and my life will finally get straightened out?

Lord, is this the time? Is this the time when I’ll finally find lasting love?

Lord, is this the time when my child be whole again?

Is this the time when I won’t have to be terrified to look at the news notifications on my phone?

Is this the time when I won’t be so scared to speak up for myself?

Is this the time when worship will finally speak to me?

Is this the time when I stop feeling so invisible to the world?

Lord, is this the time? They ask?

And Jesus says to them, “It is not for you to know the dates and times…but I promise you will receive power from the Holy Spirit when She comes. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all the earth.”

And then all of a sudden, Jesus starts to be lifted up. Floating in the air on a cloud and out of their sight. And as the disciples are gazing up at heaven, two men in white robes appear and ask “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem and went to the room upstairs, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

That’s the story of Jesus’ ascension. Okay, now be honest – raise your hand if this past Thursday at some point you thought to yourself, “Hey, today is Ascension day.”

Exactly. Very few of us. Because we don’t really think about it anymore.

You see, Ascension Day used to be a really important day in the church, up there with Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. But now it’s almost as forgettable as the disciple Bartholomew. And at first I thought it is because our modern minds don’t really know what to do with the ascension of Jesus. That it is just sort of weird – like the wizard floating off in a hot air balloon at the end of the The Wizard of Oz.

And then I saw that photo of Milo’s grandchildren looking upward. And with this text in mind, I thought of that question– why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

And in my heart, I heard an answer – Because they miss him. Because they long to have him back. Because life is terrifying without him.

Because this is grief. This is what we do. We find ourselves lost in wonder as we caress the grave stone or touch the name etched in the copper plate on the columbarium, or as we lower a flag in honor of a beloved grandfather. Life can be both awful and terrifying without the ones we love – and so we gaze off into the distance. We stand there looking up at the heavens.

Why do the disciples stand looking up toward heaven? Because their beloved leader whom they just got back from the dead has just left them behind and they miss him and they are terrified of doing this alone.

Which is perhaps the real reason why we struggle with Ascension Day in the Church. Since Ascension day, for two thousand years, the church has been waiting for Jesus’ return. And for just a moment this day, this text touches on our greatest fear – that perhaps Jesus is not with us. And that’s terrifying.

51 Sundays a year, I feel so committed to the promise that Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us.[1] But this Sunday seems a little different. In the Christian calendar, this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost seems to be the one Sunday a year when we are called to sit in the presence of absence. Jesus has left but we haven’t received the promised power of the Holy Spirit yet. And we are left here to…wait.

That’s what the disciples are asked to do in this moment of absence. To hurry up and…wait.

When the two men show up and ask why the disciples are standing looking up toward heaven, notice that they don’t demand that the disciples get it together and get to work. No, they simply reaffirm the promise – that Christ will come again. Which means you’ll have to wait. So, the disciples return home to an upper room to pray. And to wait.

And so, as one theologian has said, “The first great act of the apostles occurs when they hike back to Jerusalem . . . and wait.”[2]

God will show up, Jesus says. The power of the Holy Spirit will come. God will ignite you as witnesses and participants in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will return, in surprising and unexpected ways, the two messengers said.

But today, the disciples (and we) are asked to wait.

How good are you at waiting?

I wonder what you are waiting for in your life right now?

Based on this story, there seems to be something divine, sacred, transformative about waiting. It is something God can work with.

Because God certainly could have sent the Holy Spirit instantaneously after Jesus departure and left no one waiting.

But instead God asks the disciples to wait.

Have you ever really waited for something – on the edge of your seat? You see, this is the moment when something new is about to happen. And everything is springloaded and ready to move but you can’t move yet because you have to wait to see what happens next. Some of you who have played tennis will get this. There is a moment in tennis when the player hits the ball and the ball hits the top of the net and it goes straight up in the air. And for a moment, everyone waits…because you don’t know if the ball will land on this side of the net or that side.

This is like that moment. Something is about to happen. But we have to wait for it. This is that in-between moment, that Holy Waiting Time, in the creation story when God has made the human out of the dirt but hasn’t breathed the breath of life in yet. This is that time when the water has broken but the child has not yet arrived. This is the time when the people of God are being shaped into the body of Christ on earth. And that shaping, it can take time. And the power and the promise of the Holy Spirit, the holy breath, will come, but not just yet.

For now, the disciples are called to wait.

And it is an active waiting. An expectant waiting. A waiting that makes you watch more closely with your eyes and listening more carefully with your ears. For what God might be up to next.

And this kind of waiting – this available and attentive waiting – it takes courage. Waiting is hard. How do you know when to stop? How do you know when precious time is being wasted? To wait like this takes courage because it is to trust that God is up to something, even in what feels like God’s absence. That God is not passive but active and alive in this world. And to trust that when the time to respond arrives, you’ll know.

And look what happened when a couple handfuls of heartbroken disciples decide to wait in prayer – they become the Church.[3] And from their courageous waiting…comes you, the Church of St. John’s of 2017.

And if I learn anything from Jesus’ ascension and the time before Pentecost, it is that God has made holy those waiting times. That even in what feels like God’s absence, God is doing something. Preparing us for what’s to come in this beautiful but scary uncertain world.

So, in closing this morning, I want to invite you into some intentional waiting. As you wait to receive communion today, or as you wait for others to finish receiving communion, I invite you to open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you and let it be a holy waiting. Let yourself learn something about this community or this sacrament that you’ve never noticed before. As an act of discipleship in which perhaps God is preparing you for something you cannot see yet.

Holy are the waiting times and blessed are those who enter them.  Amen.

[1] Sam Wells, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/May-17-SW.pdf

[2] Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=884

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day We Were Left Behind”, Christianity Today, found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/may18/8t6046.html?start=2

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Sunday, April 30th, 2017 – A sermon on the road to Emmaus and Luke 24:13-35

You can listen to this sermon here.

Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Earlier this week, my son asked, “Dad, what does tagalong mean?”

At first, I explained the verb version to him. To tag along. Elliot, it’s when you follow or go along with a person or a group somewhere. You tag along with them.

But then I immediately realized that there is an entirely different way of understanding this word and it’s pretty loaded. The noun version. To be a tagalong. How am I going to explain this to him in a way that is both true and compassionate. And as I thought about it, I was quickly transported back to those treacherous moments in middle school and high school, and college, and even still sometimes today, when you yourself feel like a tagalong. We’ve all felt it. That feeling of being on the outside of a group but desperate enough to just sort of linger behind them, hoping for a natural and smooth way to blend in.

The dictionary definition is a little too blunt on this one. Tagalong – “a person who follows or goes somewhere with another person or group often in an annoying way.”

So, I stumbled over my words with Elliot as I did my best to say, “A tagalong is someone who sees someone or a group of people doing something that they want to be a part of, and they join them in it.”

And as soon as I said that, it dawns on me. Oh my goodness – Jesus is a tagalong. On the road to Emmaus – he is such a tagalong.

I rushed over to a bible and open it up to Luke 24, and it’s true. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them. And not only is Jesus a tagalong, but his opening line is the most tagalong question there is, “Uh, hey guys, whatcha talkin’ about?”

And then Cleopas, who is sad and hurting and grieving Jesus’ death, isn’t exactly the kindest person to Jesus, but then again that’s what we do when we’re hurt – we take our hurt out on others. Cleopas says to Jesus, “Are you the only kid in school hasn’t heard about what’s happened?”

And I realize I am quite likely putting a 21st Century spin on a 1st Century text, that may or may not have known of tagalongs, but I gotta say that for the insecure 13-year-old self that lives inside me who knows what it’s like, this was such good news. My heart sings at the fact that if high school is a metaphor for the gospel, Jesus is the tagalong and not the captain of the football team. And my heart aches as I think of the ways I’ve dismissed the tagalongs too.

You’ve seen those shirts that say, “Jesus is my boyfriend”, I want a shirt that says, “Jesus is my tagalong.”

But seriously. This is really good news that Jesus tags along with them on this road. Because the road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment and despair and fear, and the truth about life is that we all have or we all will walk it.

The disciples are walking it because the only thing they are sure of is that their hope died on Good Friday. And any Easter hope that is alive is rumor. Jesus, the hope they carried, had been crucified and buried. That’s all they know for sure.

We walk the road to Emmaus for many reasons. Perhaps it is because we watch as family and friends, neighbors, strangers, and students, or we ourselves are threatened and silenced because of the color of our skin. And we’ve grown weary and tired of not knowing what to do about it. Or perhaps it is because we’re at that age where our family members are declining and we don’t know how to help. Or perhaps it is because the person we always thought we would be shifts and fades as the real possibility of divorce, or barrenness, or a devastating diagnosis set in.

We all walk this road to Emmaus. It’s the road where we’re desperate for companionship but everyone’s a stranger. And at the same time, on this road, every stranger is a potential friend.

And of course it is a road. Of course it is a road to walk. Because when you are grieving, the only way out of it is through it – with your body. Too often we’ve turned grief work into something we do in our heads. You need to grieve, the therapist says. Yes, but how? Author and funeral director, Thomas Lynch says, “Grief work…is not so much the brain’s to do, as (it is) the body’s. (Grieving) is better done by large muscles than gray matter; less burden of cerebral synapse and more of shoulders, shared embraces, sore hearts.”[1] This is the gift and the wisdom of a traditional funeral. We carry with our shoulders the body of our beloved and we walk them to their place of rest. It is how we grieve. It is how we get through.

So of course it is the road to Emmaus. Because in times of grief and deep disappointment, we need to move our bodies, putting one foot in front of the other.

And of course it is the road to Emmaus. The gospel says that Emmaus is 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. Seven being the symbol of perfection – I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s something there. But here’s the thing, no one can find Emmaus. Historically, no one knows where it is. Archeologists cannot find it. Perhaps the road to Emmaus is a synonym for not knowing where you are going. Which sounds a lot like times of fear and grief and disappointment.

British psychologist Colin Murray Parkes has said that most of the time we think we know where we are going and who is with us, “except that when we’ve lost one we love (when we grieve, when we are living in the land of disappointment), we no longer know where we are going or who is going with us.”[2] Perhaps these two disciples have no clue where they are going. They’re just going. One step at a time. And Jesus, whom they’ve known and who knows them, goes with them, but they only see a stranger. A tagalong.

But then when they welcomed in this stranger and eat with him, then they recognized him as Jesus who was with them along.

Notice that it is rarely in the moment that we can see Jesus. In the moment of loss and grief and disappointment, our ears are ringing and our vision is narrowed. Usually it’s when we look back that we can see the places where God was with us.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” And they joyfully rush back to Jerusalem and tell the others what had happened to them on the road.

Now, Luke’s first readers would’ve smiled at this line. For they knew about the road. The road was more than a highway; it was a symbol for them of the whole Christian life…In fact, these early Christians were called by friends and enemies a like, “(people) of the Way”. And the word “way” and “road” are the same in Greek. In other words, early Christians were known as “people of the road. [3]

The truth of the Christian life is that Christ becomes present to us as we walk down the road together. Putting one foot in front of the other.

And at its most basic form, the gospel in this story is that Christ is with us on that road. Even when we cannot recognize him. Even when we don’t know that the face of Christ can be seen in the stranger beside us. There are “strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this.” (Jan Richardson)

In his remarkable book, The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and a son walking alone through a burned and devastated America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape (except) the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. This father and son are on a journey to the coast, having no clue what awaits them there.

It is the story of an image of the future in which no hopes remains, except that the father and son are sustained by their love for one another.

Throughout the book, there is this theme of fire. Naturally, as travelers on the road of a dystopic America, fire would be very important. They are constantly looking for wood to start a fire, waking up to a fire that’s almost burned out. The father holds the son close to the fire to warm him at night. But this theme of fire isn’t just about the fire that burns outside – it is about the fire that burns within. The father and son have this phrase they use together on the road – we’re carrying the fire, they say. The fire of hope.

Early in the book, late at night, the small boy says to his dad,

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes, we are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

Towards the end of the story, the father has grown weak and ill. He’s developed a bloody cough and he knows his end is near. And he tells his son to go on without him.

I want to be with you, the boy says.
You can’t.
Please.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

 Brothers and sisters, we are the People of the Road. People of the Way. The way of forgiveness and grace and hope, even when we can’t recognize Jesus and all seems lost. We are the people of the way, walking together and trusting that somewhere along the way, we will recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.  Together we are a people who put one foot in front of the other, not always knowing where we are going, but trusting in the presence of God with us.  And in that way, we are carrying the fire. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road? the disciples asked?

When Christ is with us, there is a burning in our hearts. When Christ is with us, there is a fire inside and hope is alive. It may feel like a small ember that is growing cold, but if you can keep the door to your heart open and not lock it up, God will breathe the Spirit of life on that tiny ember to grow a fire of life inside your heart.

And here is the thing – Christ is always with you. Especially on the road to Emmaus. Which means hope is alive and the fire has not gone out.

Carry that fire. Care for it, protect it like a candle in the wind. Because there are all sorts of forces in this life that will try to snuff it out.

And it is only fitting that this morning we have a baptism for Ozzie and the welcoming of new members. Today we lift Ozzie Taggart as one who is on the road with us and we say that he is carrying the fire too. We give him a candle representing that fire. And we recognize new members who have chosen to walk the road with us and we give each household a candle too.

Thank you for welcoming these people on the road with us. And thanks to them for welcoming us on their road. At times, we may be strangers to each other, but I trust that along the way, we will stop and look back, recognizing the face of Christ in one another.

Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? We don’t know where it is.
Yes we do. It’s here. Among us.

We do not walk alone. Christ has come along with us. And the fire is alive. Thanks be to God.

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 65.

[2] Ibid., pg. 224.

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 98.