Are You Ready for Big Things?, Ascension Sermon 06.05.11

Are You Ready for Big Things?, Ascension Sermon 06.05.11

Acts 1:6-14 and John 17:1-11.

Our graduates remind us of the power and promise and possibilities of commencement, new beginnings. As is said in Hebrew, l’chaim. “To Life.”

Our graduates: Trixie Steiner-Rose, Dorothy Juah, Lorena Haberern, Cody Long, Lauren and Alexandra Perez, Nan Weisel, Stephanie Smith, Elizabeth Gillstrom, Tim Herrmann, Sam Robinson, Adam Shaughnessy. … from 8th Grade through Graduate School!

Congratulations to each of you… and the families who have and will continue to support you.

Jesus in todays’s passage from Acts also reminds us of the power and promise and possibilities of new beginnings, ironically, as he is leaving center stage to make room for the next main character in the holy story of God’s revelation history.

But the disciples now, still more of less confounded. Perhaps understandably, as they are now having to face saying goodbye to Jesus a second time.

But their asking Jesus if this is the time that God will restore Israel… the question betrays their astounding lack of understanding. Instead of wondering about the future, they can only imagine turning the clock back. They are still hemmed in by the littleness of their aspirations and expectations. They can only think of a glorious past they’d like to regain. And of raising up their own position.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the disciples’ incredible transformation– as they, quite literally catch on fire: grow from a confused, fearful, hapless huddle into the leadership that establishes the church of Jesus Christ.

A word of thanks to Adam George, Annemarie Tritt, Cody Long, Jackson Tritt, Daniel Wilhite, Madelyn George, Rebecca Composto and Richard George for so much work and artistic outpouring getting our Sanctuary for Pentecost.

As you can see from our mosaic, in this last act, the Holy Spirit gets the leading role. But, arguably, the Spirit shares the stage with the church, her great supporting actor.

Are we ready for the role we are to play?

Those first disciples weren’t ready yet. Imagine we are standing there beside them. On Mt. Olivet, where Jesus was arrested and taken to his death. Even his resurrection presence these last 40 days since Easter hasn’t enabled them yet to make sense of it all. Lord, think of all they’ve been through in the last two months. It’s unimaginable.

The impossible has happened. Their lives have been a whirlwind. Yet, as Jesus is about to leave them again, they find themselves still captive to thinking only what’s possible. Sure their categories have been disturbed, their waters muddied, but they can’t yet see beyond… to anything that’s really a new beginning.

Jesus responds by re-directing their expectations. Not telling them to lift their downtrodden gazes, to look up, but looking beyond around them. Instead, he tried to get them looking pretty horizontally, but time-wise looking ahead, towards what’s next. Right before he levitates off to heaven, Jesus says clearly, your call and the resources God is to give your are for your ministry here on earth. This isn’t about the end-times, folks. It’s about all the unknowable between times (what seem now to be a really long stretch) where the Spirit and the church are the actors. Jesus says “The ends of the earth, not the end of the world, is to be your focus.” Jesus, as he exits the stage, gives us a really big assignment.

Jesus is calling us out of ourselves. Out of all our self-concern and narrown confines. Out of the safety, comfort and “we’ve always done it this way” of our churches. He says we are not only to share the Gospel right where we are and with people who are more or less like us. No, our calling extends much further than that– we are to share God’s love with our sworn enemies, and further, to people with whom we seem to have nothing in common with at all. To the ends of the earth.

Our calling is to acts of love so powerful they transcend our differences of culture. Acts of faith that sort of translate themselves. (After sitting most of Friday at the Transh-Health Conference where many of the people actively fear the church as a source of condemnation, or at the least misunderstanding, I sort of feel this challenge– to love people as they are and so they might know God’s love…)

Beloved, do you, like me, hear Jesus suggesting, our assignment is much bigger than we’ve considered?

It’s a much larger vision than we’ve come up with or nurtured. The very real work and ministry that the Holy Spirit resources us for doing right here on earth isn’t just about moving the chairs around or redecorating (no matter how much fun the kids remaking our sanctuary for Pentecost is).

A comment I’m borrowing from my colleague Diana Butler Bass “Ever wonder what Christianity is about? It’s about this: remaking the world so 10 year old girls never find themselves sold by their parents to a brothel. She was referring to a story from the slums of Calcutta, but I heard an equally horrifying story of what is happening to pre-teen Asian immigrant women on the streets of L.A. And we could equally fill in any number of ways that the world as we know we people are regularly dehumanized and abuses as if they don’t matter.

Bass continues, “If you ever wonder what Christianity is about, It ain’t about your church, fixing your roof (I would add ‘or even fixing our air conditioning!). …It isn’t about fighting fighting over sexuality or “orthodoxy” (which these days seem to be pretty much the same fight).

Instead, it’s about God’s world.”

In today’s reading of what happened in Mt. Olivet, as in the Easter account, two figures in white appear and ask, “why are we just standing around, when there is so much to be done?”

Can you sense two angels here today, maybe even taking the form of one or the other of our very real fellow parishioners here in church. Can you hear their directed, incredulous questions, “why are you all just sitting around here when there is so much healing and transformation, service and justice to be effected in the world all around us, starting right here in Philadelphia?”

A much greater transformation than we are expecting is in store for us. Change, not just for change sake, but with a much greater, practical purpose: there’s a whole world lying in wait for good news. And there’s no one but us to start telling and showing and loving and healing. Never has been anyone but us…

A few weeks ago, we were visited by the youth from a new UCC congregation from Palmer, PA, near Easton. Well, it’s not a new congregation; it’s the merger of 3 congregations.

Wisely foreseeing that so much merging was more complicated than beginning new, they decided, well, to start over– a new building, a new worship style, a new mission ethos. The even renamed themselves. No more St. Mark’s, St. Peter’s or Old Memorial UCC. Now, they’re known as “New Creation UCC.”

Their pastor, Paul Cronin, told me, “It’s not been easy. A lot of change. Too much for some people.”

One woman tells him every Sunday, “You know I’m never going to like this building.” Gone are the historical resonances, the churchy architecture. Yep, they have chairs and a big video screen in a sort of windowless room.

But Paul said to me, ‘Michael, it has been much more change than most people ever face in their church-lifetimes. But I’m not going easy on them. We’ve left behind all the trappings of our former church selves. No robes. No organ. No pews. We’re less churchy. Deliberately. We mean to be, so we can be more like the places most of our neighbors live their lives and want to spend their time. So we can be there for them. Real. Relevant.

Rev. Cronin explained, “I tell them, “maybe in the 70’s or even the 80’s, perhaps the church could develop slowly, incrementally. Tweak this, and fiddle with that. Rearrange the pews. Work at making their hospitality truly more welcoming. Open up a bit more.

But now, he tells his church, “It’s too late. Not realistic any longer. We’re too far behind. Too disconnected. We’ve got too much ground to cover, to much distance between where we are and where the people we are to serve can be found.”

Beloved, I’m not suggesting, don’t believe that the idioms or symbols of the traditional church inevitably get in the way and need to be discarded. What New Creation is trying, God bless them, is not the only way. But I’ll be interested to watch, and praying for their success.

I admit, sometimes I wonder about wearing this black robe. And this morning, it occurs to me, that we might be able to come up with some visual images for our sanctuary that are more evocative these days and more beautiful every day than “the flying bible” (which after all is a historical reference to the theological fight over “Mercersberg Theology” within the German Reformed Churches that began in 1844). Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like the “low church” branding of the flying bible. It’s just that I suspect most people don’t recognize the symbol as meaning anything like that. One person admitted to me she worried that image was a Bible coming down on her head, as if it had been thrown at her. Today, as it’s covered with the youth’s post-it, mosaic flame, can we ask ourselves, is that image of Scripture floating over our heads even particularly apropos for our ministry today?

And, now here I go; I’ll get myself in trouble… hope this is the Holy Spirit and not the Devil making me go out on this limb: I am also growing to covet the possibilities we’d come into if our sanctuary was more a truly flexible, multi-purpose space. Can you imagine how holy this space could be used if it were open, rearrangeable, welcoming to a host of different activities that would add beauty and strength and justice to the world around us. Not just worship a few hours a week, but concerts and exhibits and community gatherings and… the opportunities could be almost endless…

But specifics– that’s not really what I’m talking about.

I’m thinking about our willingness to stretch for mission. To step out. To risk something completely new. Beloved, I admire the boldness, the stretch of New Creation’s vision and action.

Have we been thinking big enough?
Have I been pushing you hard enough?
Have I agitated enough?

I was listening at the New Members’ class yesterday. As people, newer folks and folks who’ve been around awhile were sharing about what they’ve found at Old First.

And it occurred to me: while we haven’t gotten everything worked out or together or just right yet (will we ever?), this community’s got too much going for it to leave it contained in these four walls. Isn’t that sort of hiding our light under a bushel. Don’t we have to get out there, and show our stuff, not to be show-offy or falsely proud, but to be witnesses like I was telling the children this morning, to tell others what we’ve found, what’s been given to us, that they too can share?

(A word of apology– I said in the sermon last week, I thought last week, that the fence signs would be up today, but the printer is didn’t get the material, so I’m hoping by next Sunday, Pentecost, which is kind of appropriate anyway…)

Church, perhaps we’ve been thinking too small? Maybe we’ve been moving too slow? Maybe God’s waiting on us for more transformation than we’ve realized. A bigger job than we’ve even imagined. Food for a hungry world. Peace where there is so much war. Safety and care for children at risk. Reversing the degradation of people and our planet…

In the beginning of our covenant ministry, people were unsure, jittery– who was Michael and what was this revitalziation?

More specifically, what would it be like to welcome new people, especially if they weren’t all that much like us? How would we have to change in order to do so? How might we be changed doing so?

I’ve kept reassuring everyone one: incremental change; baby steps; everyone will be able to keep up. I think was the right strategy, to reassure, especially the most unsure, as we got going that the changes wouldn’t be too dramatic.

And we’ve covered some territory. Gained some skills with innovation. Even realized that it can be exciting, fun, sexy (did I just say “sexy” from the pulpit?). Change isn’t all loss; it’s also real, abundant life.

You new folks, “God bless you and thank you.” I hope you realize how precious you are to us. How much not only are you welcome, but how much you already have brought to us. How important you are to our mission and our future.

And to our longer-term types, Yes, we new people are different. I thought that last night while we were decorating the sanctuary and Bruce was on the electric piano, and Adam George was on the drums, and they were, as Bruce said, “Bumpin'” and I thought to myself, “If they’re that loud in worship, I’m going to be in trouble.”

New folks make us different the first time they walk through the door. But, isn’t that part of God’s blessing?

What am I saying? Maybe I’ve been too soft on us? Maybe I haven’t agitated enough? Maybe God’s waiting for us to be changed in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Perhaps that’s what’s needed in order to serve the people God’s waiting on us to reach, all the way to the end of the earth?

(At this point, I left the pulpit, and placed my three cans on the communion table for our “Communion Can-Do” food drive, and finished the sermon from down at the communion table.)

In just a moment, we’re going to gather for the holy meal that Jesus prepares for us. And today, and next Sunday, and for the next couple of months, we’re going to add to our communion services. Not just come here to receive. But as we come forward, we’ll also add to the Table. Not because God needs us here. But God needs us to make sure that the communion doesn’t stop here. We’re contributing food so that hungry people well beyond these four walls, so they can share in God’s grace and provision. We’re acting so that communion doesn’t stop here and now on Sunday mornings within this community…

But, even here, right now, I wonder, are we ready for, even aware of what happens, what’s going to happen. Not just another first Sunday communion. but something holy and incredible. God’s presence that gathers us up, those of us who are alike. And those of us who are enemies. (If you have an enemy here today, maybe you need to get in line together and take communion together?) Our getting that close. Eating together. Or all being fed because everyone get hungry and thirsty.

It’s not about what we do. But about what God has already done. And for what God is yet to do through us, provided for us, that we may in turn provide for others. In every holy meal, when or wherever there is communion.

Are we ready for what is about to happen? Not just a food drive. Or a religious ritual. But God, in grace, serving us. That we might find, maybe be given, what we need to really begin serving others. Amen.