Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reflections on the text for Ascension – Acts 1:6-14

Read the text here: Acts 1:1-14

Endings and Beginnings
In the early years of the church through most of history the Feast of the Ascension held as important a place in the lives of worshippers as did Christmas.  In fact, in some ways it was more important.  But falling as it does on the 40th day after Easter, which is always on a Thursday, means that the day never cycles around to Sunday like most of the rest of our festivals.  So as we have entered into the modern world the Feast of the Ascension has been lost and goes uncelebrated by most Christians, unless it is moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter.
This is a loss because the ancients had it right – Ascension is essential to not only our understanding of our faith, but also to our living as disciples in this world.  For the event of the Ascension is THE pivotal event in the story of Jesus for the church.  For Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, this story was so important that he told it twice.  The first time is right at the very end of the Gospel of Luke 24:44-53; and then the Book of Acts begins with retelling the same story – Acts 1:1-11.  Up until then Jesus had, for 40 days after the Resurrection, been present with and teaching his disciples – why?  He is preparing them for their work, the mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus.  And this work will only begin after the Ascension.  Jesus must depart in order for the disciples to take on their calling.
So the story of the Ascension is both a story of endings and a story of beginnings.  The Ascension brings to a close Jesus’ physical life among the disciples and among us humans.  Jesus physically departs to return to God promising to return.  But it is also a story of the beginnings of the ministry of the disciples and of the church.  As long as Jesus is physically present with the disciples they will never step out on their own.  Only after Jesus has departed will they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and begin to move forward doing the work that Jesus called them to do – that is, the work of the proclamation of the Good News, which includes sharing God’s love and grace in both words and deeds.
Of course, they are not enthusiastic about this.  They don’t want Jesus to leave.  That is obvious.  And even right at the end they are asking Jesus when he will come again and bring in the Kingdom of God in its fullness.  Jesus responds simply by telling them that they should not concern themselves with that and just get to work.  Even as Jesus disappears the disciples are standing there gazing into the heavens and have to be reminded by the two men in white robes (angels?) that they have work to do.  Then they return to their room in Jerusalem and lock the door and do… well, nothing.  Until the Holy Spirit comes and pushes them into the streets and then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the work begins.
And the work of the Spirit continues with us.  For we are called to follow in the footsteps of the original disciples doing exactly the same work: proclaiming God’s love and grace through word and deed.  Perhaps the word “proclaiming” gets in the way, since for most of us it means speaking or talking.  So I’ll put it another way – the work to which we are called to is to embody God’s love and grace in a way that it is a part of how we live and how we are in relationship with others.  But too often we are like the disciples in this Ascension story, pleading with Jesus to come back so we don’t have to do anything and then gazing into the sky trying to catch a glimpse of the holy.  So the words of the men in white robes are for us – time to get to work!  The gift of the Spirit is showered upon us!  And God empowers us in our lives as well.
One of the liturgical traditions that is observed during the Ascension Day liturgy is that the Paschal candle is extinguished after the reading of the Gospel.  The Paschal candle has been lit throughout the season of Easter to symbolize the physical presence of the risen Christ with the disciples.  The Paschal candle is then extinguished on Ascension Day to symbolize that Jesus is no longer physically present.  Over the years, I have had a few folks object to this tradition.  “But Jesus is still present with us, isn’t he?”  Yes, but in a different way.  We now experience the presence of the risen Christ in a whole variety of different ways and the primary way is through the gift of community.  Christ is present with us most profoundly in community.  In our very individualist society we have a hard time with this one.  We think that everything about our faith is all about me and Jesus alone and so we too often shut out the community.  And when we do this we shut ourselves off from one of God’s greatest gifts.  For it is through others, through the community that we experience the presence of the risen Christ most profoundly.
This focus on the gift of community and the calling of all the Baptized to live lives that reflect the Good News of God’s love and grace is what is proclaimed at Ascension. Perhaps we should adjust the candle tradition slightly.  Perhaps a more appropriate symbol would be to first distribute the flame from the Paschal candle to the community before extinguishing the Paschal candle.  In this way we are reminded of our calling to be the light of the world; to be Christ to our neighbor; to love and serve God through loving and serving others.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Reflections on the text: John 14:15-21

Come Along Side
Every so often in our reading of the Bible we encounter a word that is central to the understanding of a passage, but at the same time if we look beyond the word itself we usually discover that this particular word is one of those words that the translators found difficult, if not impossible to translate.  Sometimes the word is just left in Greek, and you are on your own; at other times the translators will pick one English word from among multiple possible choices and go with that.  The problem with this is that then how we understand that word is limited by the narrow definition of the chosen English word. 
This is the situation we find ourselves in this morning with our Gospel text.  Let’s look at verse 16: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  Another Advocate!  Another?  Well, Jesus is the first Advocate (see below for more about that), so the next Advocate will be sent after Jesus’ resurrection and this is usually interpreted to refer to the sending of the Holy Spirit.  And then the word “Advocate.”  What does that mean?  One meaning of an “Advocate” is one who defends, or who speaks for someone else, as in a court of law.  Sometimes defense lawyers are called “Advocates.”  But another dimension of the meaning of this word is one who brings “help, consolation, comfort and encouragement.” And it is the latter sense of the word that is closest to the Greek word here - and the Greek word is PARACLETE.
Paraclete.  Have you heard that word before?  In the children’s sermon I will make a little joke about how much the word sounds like Parakeet, or some might think we are talking about a “pair of cleats.”  But no, PARACLETE is a Greek word that is almost impossible to translate.  When we hear the word we naturally think of the Holy Spirit, but the literal meaning of the word is this: One who comes along side another.
Another Advocate!”  Jesus was the first!  That is what Incarnation is all about.  Jesus is the one who comes along side of us by taking on our humanity in order to enter fully into the human experience.  The gods of the nations, which Paul talks about in the Acts text could never do this.  They were always remote and stayed as far away from especially the dark side of human life as possible – just like our own popular societal “gods” which deny loss and demand optimism and phony happiness.  But this is not true with the God we worship.  Through Jesus’ incarnation God enters fully into life – God enters fully into the losses we experience – God is not afraid of suffering, grief or anything that is a part of human life.
The Gospel text for this day from John 14 is a part of what is called Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.”  The disciples have gathered with Jesus for the Last Supper.  There is a terrifying feeling of loss and uncertainty that the disciples pick up on.  Jesus keeps talking about crucifixion and the disciples are confused and frightened by the prospect of this horrible loss.  In the face of this Jesus tells them: “Love one another” and “The Father will send another Advocate…”  This “Advocate” will be the spirit of God and this advocate will come along side of you in order to stand with you. But not only that, this “Advocate – this Paraclete will empower you to stand with each other.  For one uniquely powerful way that we experience the presence and support of God in the midst of our loss is through the presence and love and caring and prayers of others within the community.  As we come along side of another who is in the midst of suffering loss at the same time God comes up along side as well.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Reflections on the text – Easter 5A – John 14:1-12

Read the text here: John 14:1-12
 On the Way
One of my favorite movies is the classic Judy Garland film “The Wizard of Oz.”  I'm sure that I have seen this film at least 20 times, and I'm sure that you have also seen this movie at least once no matter how old you are.  You remember the story: A tornado plops Dorothy down in the middle of a strange place called OZ, and in the process she accidently killed the wicked witch of the east and ends up with the precious ruby slippers for which she is then pursued by the profoundly evil Wicked Witch of the west; her major, most important goal thereafter is that she wants to return home to Kansas, which represents life and happiness to her.  But how?  Maybe the Great Wizard of Oz who lives in the Emerald City would help her (there is, by the way, never any question whether he can or not, only whether he will be willing.)  Well then, what is the way to the Emerald City?  "JUST FOLLOW THE YELLOWBRICK ROAD!" the Munchkins sing as Dorothy sets off on her adventure.  She is carefully instructed that if she will only stay on the Yellowbrick road she will come to the Emerald City without fail. 
What a promise!  Just follow the Yellowbrick Road to the Emerald City, where the Wizard will grant you your hearts desire and you will find true life and happiness.  And Dorothy preaches this gospel without fail to everyone she meets and in the process picks up three unusual traveling companions each one of whom lack only one important trait to make them human.  "Maybe the Wizard can help them too," Dorothy suggests.  So together they sing "we're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz…because of the wonderful things he does."  Nothing holds them back from pursuing their dream: neither forests nor talking trees, nor poppy fields, nor flying monkeys nor even evil incarnate in the Wicked Witch of the West.  But eventually what do Dorothy and the others find out at the end?  Are the promises of the Yellowbrick road and the Emerald City and the wonderful Wizard of Oz fulfilled?
In our Gospel today the disciples, notably Thomas and Philip are questioning Jesus about the Way.  Thomas wants to know where they're going before he starts out.  What is the destination?  How can I know the way if I don't know the destination?  How can I program my GPS to get me somewhere if I don’t know where I am going?  How can I formulate objectives if I don't know the goals?  Philip's question is similar: "just give me a glimpse of the Father, let me see the Kingdom just for a second."  Promise me that it's really there.  Together they are saying to Jesus: "Promise us that we will come to the Emerald City and meet the great Wizard  that there we will also find true life and eternal happiness.  And then, when we're sure that we will find Kansas, then point out the way and we will start on it."  They were looking for Jesus to be Glenda the Good Witch of the North who would gently say "follow the Yellowbrick road" and then promise to magically appear whenever they get themselves in a real mess.  "Just follow the Yellowbrick road!" 
On the surface the disciple’s request is not so outrageous really.  We all expect to know which way we're going before we will commit ourselves to any kind of journey.  Before I get on Interstate #64 I need to know first whether I'm going to Indianapolis or St. Louis.  Before we commit ourselves to a task or a person or an organization we usually feel that we need to at least have caught a glimpse of where we are going.  We need to have that promise before making a commitment.  This is true with our jobs, careers, with our relationships, especially our marriages; and this is true with our associations, even the church.  We ask ourselves: "is this career or this person or this church or this company or this friend or this club going to give me what I need for my life?"  Will it be, in a sense, the Yellowbrick road, to an Emerald City or Wizard that promises some kind of fulfilled and happy life at the end?  But the problem, as I am sure you have all figured out is that in the end Dorothy and her companions learn a terribly painful lesson: the Wizard is a phony and the promise of the Yellowbrick road is a lie!
A hungering for an experience of true life and happiness is a hungering that each of us has been given as a gift.  But when we place something like material success, or career, or power in the role of the Wizard and we embark on a Yellowbrick road that is paved with people's lives, relationships, work and play.  And sooner or later we are bound to learn the hard lesson that the Wizard is a phony; he/she/it cannot deliver upon promises made; and that the Yellowbrick Road is a lie.
"Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"  Jesus said to him, "I am the way of true life; no one comes to the Father but through me."  The way of true life is found only in the way of Jesus.  And when we have experienced the presence of Jesus in our lives, we have at the same time had a glimpse of the Kingdom.  If we have experienced God's love and grace through the caring of a loved one, or a brother or sister in Christ, when we have been sick or during a time of crisis, then we have experienced a glimpse of the kingdom; if we have sensed the presence of God beside us as we have worshiped, prayed, and shared in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, in this we have experienced a glimpse of the kingdom; if we have ever mourned, or wept, or hungered or feared or celebrated or rejoiced and felt the presence of the community of Christ, your brothers and sisters with us in this then we have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom.
The way of Jesus is not the Yellowbrick road, it is rather more like the Via Doloroso in East Jerusalem.  The Via Doloroso, or Way of Sorrows, is the way tradition believes Jesus took to the place of crucifixion.  It is the annual place where pilgrims come on Good Friday to walk the Stations of the Cross.  The Via Doloroso is not paved with gold, it is a dirty, smelly, crowded, cramped road on which is barely enough room for all the people and animals which occupy it daily.  The Via Doloroso does not go over, or around life, it does not bypass the uncomfortable places; rather it goes right through them.  It goes right through the heart of the experience of human life.  It is a place where human beings daily experience the joys, sorrows, fears, uncertainties, anger and despair that is human life.  Upon the Via Doloroso one is able to encounter all kinds of people.  But these people are fully human, with all the gifts and failings that one could expect to find in any person.  It was on The Via Doloroso that Jesus encountered, the women who were weeping, the other thieves, Roman soldiers, Zealots, Pharisees, merchants and others.  And so too, we also encounter all kinds of people on the way of Jesus.  The way of Jesus does not pave over top of people, it does not use lives and relationships as cobblestones for a bypass; it is a way which enables encounter, which is at the service of the people who travel on it. 
Finally, The Via Doloroso leads through the cross and the crucifixion - it leads through death and grief.  The Way of Jesus does not deny death, it accepts fully that death is a part of life - but that death is not the last word - rather, ultimately the Way of Jesus leads through death to the joy and celebration of the Easter message of the Empty Tomb.  Death does not have the last word, Jesus has entered fully into death that he might overcome death and that we all might experience fully the promise of true life.  "And Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth and the life…” I am the way of true life, no one comes to the Father except by me.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Reflections on the Text – Easter IVA – John 10:1-10/Acts 2:42-47

Read the John text here: John 10:1-10
Read the Acts text here: Acts 2:42-47
Abundant Life: Giving It All Away
Jesus says, I came that they (You! We!) may have life, and have it abundantly.  Fantastic!  Wonderful!  What good news!  But… what exactly does it mean?  The word “abundant” means to have a lot of something – “like an abundant harvest of grapes.” Or we talk about someone who has lots of things has having an “abundance” of stuff.  But how can you have abundant life?  The prosperity Gospel folks have latched on to this passage and have interpreted it as meaning that Jesus is saying that God wants us to have lots of stuff, material possessions, wealth, money, fancy cars, big houses.  For them that is what “abundant life” is: a life of comfort and ease and wealth.  But it is hard to square that with the picture of Jesus on the cross – naked, tortured, bleeding, stripped of every worldly possession; or Jesus’ teachings and parables on wealth – like the Rich Man and Lazarus; or Jesus’ words to the Rich Young Ruler or Zacheaus; or Jesus’ teaching that those who would save their lives must loose their lives.  Abundant life is not to be found in stuff, in wealth or possessions – ok, then what?
The first lesson for this weekend from the book of Acts is instructive in helping us come to an answer for this question.  After being commissioned by Jesus to “Go into all the world sharing the Good News of Jesus” at the Ascension the disciples go back to their locked room and do nothing.  Suddenly without warning the winds and tongues of flame of the Holy Spirit drive them out into the public square on the Feast of Pentecost and they begin sharing the Good News.  Peter preaches the sermon of his life and out of it all the Holy Spirit creates community – the church.  This community is described in these last few verses of Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need…
This is what Jesus is talking about when he promises “abundant life;” This is what Jesus means when he promises “Eternal Life” or the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” all of which have come NOW into our midst.  They are not for some delayed future time – they are for NOW.  And the marks of what Jesus means by “abundant life” are right here in this passage. 
At the core of this text Jesus lifts up the gift of community! In our very hyper-individualistic society we often either dismiss or ignore the biblical focus on community.  But at the root of God’s gifts and promises to us is the gift of community.  It is into the community that we are baptized and it is through the community that we experience the presence and love and grace of Christ in our daily lives.  As we gaze into the heavens looking for a sign – like the disciples at the Ascension – Christ is there besides us within the life of the community.  And what marks a community of Christ?  These things – a focus on the teachings of the Apostles – that is the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ; Fellowship – that is, spending time being with and caring for one another; “The breaking of Bread” which is Luke’s code phrase for the celebration of Holy Communion every time the community meets together; and prayers – the community praying for each other constantly.
And then there is that awkward final phrase about giving away all our possessions and having everything in common.  Is Luke serious?  I think so.  Again, think of Jesus’ teachings – he tells the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he has and come and follow; after lunching with Zacheaus, the tax collector offers to give up all he has accumulated.  But of course it isn’t practical for us to go to this extreme, is it?  Perhaps not, but it does call for us to ponder and pray about what this might mean for us.  And I think that it does raise a couple important issues.  1st – It is all too true that many of us worship our wealth and possessions – they have become the primary idol in our society.  This passage calls on us to take an honest look at our idolatry of wealth and possessions and to pray that God would help us to find ways to give up this idolatry.  2nd – It raises issues of stewardship.  The money raised within these early church communities were used to further the proclamation of the Gospel and to help and support those in need.  Do we support the ministry and proclamation of the Gospel through our community in a manner that is appropriate in relation to the blessings we have received from God? Are we doing enough to feed, clothe and assist those who are in need? Or do we give the left-overs to God?
     Lastly, it reminds us of this teaching of Jesus: Then he (Jesus) said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  Here is the answer to the question about “abundant life.”  What is abundant life and how do we experience abundant life?  It is found in giving it all away.  As we give of ourselves – as we give our lives to others in the community and in the world – others who are also beloved children of God – we find that God gives more and more to us.  More what – Things? Stuff? Money?  Nope!  More forgiveness – more love – more grace – more hope!  That is where we find abundant life.  If we are looking for it in the stuff we accumulate we are looking in the wrong place.  Open your eyes and see Jesus the Good Shepherd who is the door to abundant life and receive from him the gift of community!