(A sermon for Easter 7B May 24, 2009 Acts 1: (6-11)12-17, 21-26)
I’ve just returned from Paradise. Really, I would be hard-pressed to think of a place more like what I hope heaven will be than Interlochen Arts Academy on a beautiful spring day. The lake, the trees, the happy faces and, oh! The music!!
Thursday night we went to hear the Orchestra play. The young musicians took on a very difficult piece, according to Peter the hardest thing they have played this year (Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2). First we heard a poem written by a student, telling the story of the Greek myth on which the orchestral piece was based, and then the orchestra began to play, and dancers interpreted the story in another form.
I’ll be completely truthful: at that event I cared most about hearing my son. I’ve worked hard to learn how to pick out the tones of the clarinet, and he told me his solo portions were particularly difficult. I was focused like a maternal laser beam on the orchestra in front of me and the easily recognizable corona of Peter’s hair next to his friend Josh’s bassoon high above their heads.
But then I heard a sound I could not recognize. Was it the strings being played in an unusual way?
It sounded like…voices.
The sound went away, but soon it returned, louder than before.
Then I realized the choir must be singing. Over our heads, in a space at the top of the concert hall, they stood, providing another texture to the piece, the voices of the gods.
I remember being that age, singing with my friends, loving being part of something larger, my voice part of a greater whole.
I remember the feeling of importance when I led my section in the A Capella Choir at high school.
I imagine the disciples felt much like the section leaders in an orchestra or a large choir: dedicated, responsible, and needed by the others who were very much followers, not a part of the inner circle of Jesus, but part of the larger ensemble, looking to them for guidance. My Peter looked up to the better players his first year, and then in his second year became one of those leaders, the person who spoke up and watched out for the younger students in his section. He has been learning music, but he has been learning more; he plays better, but he also understands his place in the scheme of things, what kind of person he wants to be and how he wants to fit into the world.
After three years with Jesus, his Peter knew he needed to step up and lead.
Here’s a funny thing. Somehow we manage to believe in a Resurrected Jesus without ever talking much about how he came to go away again. We rarely spend time thinking about the Ascension, which must have been a very spooky, odd experience, as reported by the author of Acts. The disciples saw Jesus taken up into heaven.
It seems to me they reached another potential turning point here. After the crucifixion they stuck together and retreated to the Upper Room; they did not scatter. But it took just a few days until they saw Jesus again, and the various gospels suggest he came and went for 40 days until he ascended. He’s been among them, so why wouldn’t they stay together?
Now he is really, truly gone. The men in the white coats said so! Yes, there is that little element of questionable sanity here, too, isn’t there?
What will they do next?
I find it rather wonderful that they returned again to the Upper Room, and we read all their names listed:
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. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
So we have the remaining eleven disciples– for at this point, Judas Iscariot has fled and died– the mother and brothers of Jesus, and “certain women,” who apparently the author prefers will remain anonymous. We can imagine them: Mary Magdalene, perhaps the sisters from Bethany, the women who went to the cross and the tomb. This is the crowd that won’t go home.
They devote themselves to prayer, constantly. And finally, Peter brings them to the larger collection of followers, 120 of them, to say they need to round out the leadership circle. They need a twelfth disciple. They have decided to literally re-group.
I’m not sure why anyone would want to be the New, Improved Judas.
But 12 is a mystical number, representing wholeness, and Peter believes, supported by the prayers of the faithful inner circle, that 12 it must be. There were 12 tribes of Israel, and so perhaps Peter wants to suggest they will form something lasting, too.
Or perhaps he just wants things to be as much like they were with Jesus as he can manage.
Peter lays out the parameters: the one they choose must have been with him from the beginning. Peter wanted witnesses, people who could tell the whole story from their own point of view.
Suppose you had been around three years earlier, watching John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the River Jordan. Suppose you happened to be there on the very day Jesus came and John baptized him. Suppose you are standing now listening to Peter and realizing he could be talking about you?
If you’ve ever sat in an awards assembly, you know what I mean, don’t you? You hear the winner being described and you think you know who it is, but the more facts they add, the more certainly you realize it’s not your kid or your sister or yourself who will be getting the trophy. Your stomach churns or your pulse races, and then it suddenly stops and you applaud politely for the person who really won.
Suppose you are Matthias or Barsabbas. Suppose you know you were there, and you look around the place of meeting and you think, “I was there! Pick me!!!”
And then maybe you think, “O, Lord. I was there. Please don’t remember me.”
And Peter prays, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.”
It’s a little terrifying, being known that well, in all our passionate strength and in all our petty weakness, too.
And if you’re Matthias or Barsabbas, you might have been thinking it was about time to go home after three years of wandering, but God knows your heart, and what if God picks you anyway? Plenty of prophets have been reluctant, you know that. You know that.
They’re going to cast lots; it sounds funny to us, that they would put faith into the casting of lots, a gamble, really. But the method did not matter, and the result may not have mattered much either. We never hear from either of these guys again, Matthias or Joseph called Barsabbas, known as Justus. It appears what really mattered was that the eleven and the women and the family of Jesus and the 120 followers worked together, trusting that God would know their hearts.
And that left room for the Spirit to move.
My Peter graduated yesterday morning along with 199 other students, all specializing in some creative field. They heard speeches urging them to dream big. They heard speeches encouraging them to feel the feelings of the moment. They heard speeches encouraging them to repay the efforts of their teachers and the support of their parents by striving to be the best possible musicians, dancers, writers, actors and singers they can be.
I believe God works in these young people’s lives in ways that may sound like the story we read this morning. They know what they love to do, and they devise parameters for colleges, universities and conservatories where they might pursue their work. They pray, whether or not they make it formal, when they devote themselves constantly to their practice. And then they send in their applications, which is not all that different from casting lots! It’s a pretty overwhelming process, but I know I trusted, most of the time, that it
would work out in the best possible way for my child. That doesn’t necessarily mean it looks the way he thought it would, but if we will commit to something, pray and complete the process, God will work in it, in God’s own way.
This church is doing the same kind of thing in preparing for an active search for a new pastor. And just as it was true for the disciples and for a young man with a clarinet, God knows your hearts, knows the sort of person this church will need as pastor, and the sort of person who will love to be the pastor here.
Friday afternoon at Interlochen, Lucy and I hurried into the Concert Hall, a few minutes late for the Choir Concert. From the stairs to the balcony, we could hear them singing their first piece, a song by Mozart. Over our heads we heard music, and we climbed the stairs to meet it. Sometimes the holy becomes so visible or audible or tangible that it practically proves God.
We settled into our seats and listened. And because I didn’t see exactly the same title, it surprised me when they began to sing a setting of one of the hymns I had already chosen for today: “Over my head, I hear music in the air. There must. Be. A. God. Some. Where.” Yes, there must, and God knows we need to feel that presence.
The author of Acts wrote of an ascension because in that time and place people did not know the Earth was round. They did not know about gravity. They assumed God was up and hell was down and Earth lay flat in between, a stage with God in the fly space. We know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between?
God knows we need to feel the connection between here and there, wherever there may be.
“You know everyone’s heart,” Peter prayed. Peter and the disciples would go on to create something they never meant to make: organized Christianity.
In the graduating class at Interlochen, some of the actors will grow up to be lawyers, the film-makers, businessmen; the trombonists, doctors. But some of them will devote themselves to their art and support themselves as the future waiters, baristas and dishwashers of America. Is one way better than the other?
Did it really matter where the cast lots fell? Hearts are seldom tuned to outcomes.
The great Conductor knows our hearts and our parts and gives us cues and directions. Like the orchestra, we are called to play, devotedly. Amen.