Audio Sermons, Sermons

Long-Distance Relationship

kissing train station
Off to war.

(A sermon for Ascension Sunday–May 12, 2013–Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23audio here, beginning at 27:35)

We’ve all lived those moments: the train leaves the station; the bus pulls away from the curb; the person we love starts the car, backs out of the driveway, and we watch for the kiss we hope they’ll blow. Times have changed, but I can still remember the days when we walked to the edge of the tarmac and watch my daddy climb the stairs to a Piedmont jet. I would wave and wave, trusting he would turn around one last time.

In the movies, we see romantic farewell embraces at the train station; we watch the lover follow the train down the platform. It’s such a common image, it’s been spoofed in movies from “Young Frankenstein” to “Airplane.” When the love interest doesn’t want her hair mussed by a kiss, or runs alongside a plane instead of a train, we know something is hilariously wrong.

Goodbyes are supposed to be meaningful and memorable.

When I deliver my older children to airports, or to bus and train stations, I bid them farewell expecting a return or a reunion. We do this so regularly, it feels normal. I remind the college students to text on arrival. In between visits, we connect via Skype or Facetime to keep up with what’s going on at home and in their other worlds. To his amazement, our college boy discovered he could send his mother flowers via the Internet. As he put it, “Crazy, right?”

Wherever we are, we are part of each other.

Stained Glass Clouds

For Jesus’ friends on that long ago day, it was a different kind of farewell. Their loved one moved out of sight on the Great Cloud Elevator that some believe will return him to us. It was not normal, unusual even for scripture, the first supernatural departure since the whirlwind lifted Elijah. If he waved, scripture does not record it.

If they ran behind him, or leapt to reach out for him, the author is kind enough not to expose them.

Jesus’ farewell is the beginning of a new story, the Acts of the Apostles. These Acts are an Epic Adventure! Lives will be lost along the way, and the world will be changed. For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?

Like Luke, Acts begins with angels confirming a message from God. The two figures in white robes redirect the disciples just as the two men in dazzling clothes redirected the women at the tomb. Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why do you stand looking up into heaven?

In the first case, they explain something that is part of our understanding, reminding the disciples what Jesus said about his fate, that he would be tried and crucified and would rise again. We observe and remember these things each year with established rituals. We tell the stories. We share the Lord’s Supper. We strip the altar. We light candles, then extinguish them to symbolize the way Jesus’ friends deserted him. We pause and wait in the silence of death and the tomb. We bring flowers and trumpets into the church to celebrate the triumph of new life. We expect to do these things.

We do not have similar rituals for Ascension.

The second part of the speech of the men in the white robes does not feel so familiar. We do not grab this text out and use it for Children’s Sunday, building elevators we will re-use from year to year like a manger, lifting some child dressed as Jesus to the ceiling on a paper-decorated platform.

We do not go outside and stand in a field and look at the sky every Ascension Day, lighting candles and keeping vigil.

Now, let’s be clear. Perfectly faithful Christians, who agree on many other things, can and will disagree about what may have happened to the body of Jesus Christ after his death and resurrection. But even the most dubious of us can get behind the idea that life returns in the spring and with it a reminder that God gives us new life in unexpected ways, often when we have given up hope.

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

Ascension is trickier. It promises something we have not yet seen. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b, NRSV) It remains a mystery. We don’t even mention it every year. Those of us who don’t hold tight to the notion that Jesus will come again are okay with that. We might like other versions of Jesus better. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, he tells us plainly, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Get to it right now. No need for a second coming; no need to see him resurrected, either. His arrival is the story. The presence of God right here and right now is the story.

The author of Luke and Acts takes parts of Mark’s simple story and elaborates it for a Greek audience. The Great Cloud Elevator seems like a device from Greek theatre, the deus ex machina. That’s

a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object… (In Greek drama) a crane (mechane) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.”[i]

Here the crane, or the cloud, carries Jesus off-stage. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine place was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between? Crazy, right?

Practical people may not like this story. We like the apostles forming the first church community, naming Deacons and getting their mission program together for widows and orphans. We can picture them in up-close relationship with other people, helping the way we do when we contribute to New Hope, or work in the Community Garden, or visit the sick. We live in the now doing our best for Christ’s sake, not waiting for the Great Cloud Elevator to descend in glory.

Practical people may not like this story. We like our Jesus in the flesh, teaching in the synagogue, stirring up trouble, walking dusty roads with his friends, healing the sick, or sitting thirsty beside a well. We may not get to sit with him, but we can picture him, can’t we? We can picture him in up-close relationship with other people. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that his location is undisclosed, for now.

Christ’s farewell to the disciples, his trip on the Great Cloud Elevator, began our long-distance relationship with God’s right-hand man. History is full of such relationships. I remember being fascinated by the phrase “epistolary romance,” a relationship conducted by the writing of letters. We call it snail mail now. We expect more instant communication. Even email is too slow for the Smartphone set; they prefer text.

Before I married and moved here to Mechanicsburg, my own long-distance relationship relied on cards in the mail, but also on “Friends and Family” cell phone minutes and unlimited text messages and Google chats and conversations on Skype. Somehow, most of the time, we felt connected. But what we really wanted was to be in the same place.

Following him on Twitter doesn't count.
Following him on Twitter doesn’t count.

How can we connect with Jesus? We can’t pick him up at the airport. We can’t send him a Facebook message. We can’t text him and expect a quick response. We must employ more old-fashioned forms of communication to reach him. We read about him in scripture. We pray to him with words and in silent intensity. We worship, singing songs that express our feelings. Most importantly, we live in community together as his body. Christ is the guiding head. We are his hands and feet in the world. He is part of us; we are part of him. We are far apart, but we are intimate.

Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details about his body and God’s timing doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. Go out and have the Epic Adventure of being Christ’s Church. Live into the wonder of a long-distance relationship that commands new connections in the here and now, connections that show God’s love not just in word but in action.

Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and show the Good News of God’s love. Make some up-close relationships, in Christ’s name. Amen.

Audio Sermons, Proverbs, Sermon, Sermons

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

(A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 19, 2012–Proverbs 9:1-6click here for audio)

They’re partners. They spend a lot of time together. Tim is idealistic and emotional. Frank is cerebral and cynical. Their temperaments clash, and in the day to day of life, they’ve been known to bicker.

Tim feels frustrated because he thinks Frank fails to observe the humane niceties that mark polite interaction, and at the end of what is, well, a bit of a rant, he says, “You never say please! You never say thank you!”

And Frank responds, “Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank and Tim

Maybe some of you will now recognize Frank and Tim, fictional Baltimore Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss, from the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. It’s a funny little exchange that characterizes their relationship, but it’s also a representation of Frank’s philosophy. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And they are out in the world trying to solve the worst sorts of crimes, so why should it matter whether or not he is polite to Tim? Isn’t the subject of the argument idiotic?

Human beings *can* excel at being idiotic.

Friday morning I was over at George and Carol Black’s house, and as I was leaving, I turned my head left to admire one of their adorable granddaughters at the same time I was turning the rest of me right toward the door and…

And I missed the step I should have known was there, and I came crashing down on the floor.

It’s a pretty basic concept: “Watch where you’re going.”

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Turning into the church driveway Friday morning, I thought of the text. “You that are simple, turn in here.”

I felt pretty simple, which is to say, unwise. It’s not that hard to watch where you’re going. But a propensity for accident is part of the human condition. We’re distracted and out-of-balance and overwhelmed by the demands of life, and the shiny things that loom in front of us, and the “need” to hurry, and even the coo of a baby in a Pack-and-Play.

Maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that people have been this way forever: idiotic, misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

It’s been suggested to me this week that I’m too hard on myself, but I certainly felt idiotic and embarrassed as I assessed the situation and picked myself up as quickly as possible, getting away before anyone else could see the damage.

I came back to church and looked for the First Aid Kit in the kitchen, only to discover that we really need a new one. Then Lyn sent an email to the Trustees asking if they would replace it, and since George is a Trustee, the Blacks quickly figured that I was the patient in need.


And since I know they know, well, here we all are no longer wondering why I’m wearing a specially purchased Band-Aid that fits on a knee.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Turn into Wisdom’s House. The book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a feminine figure of power who partnered with God in Creation.* The Hebrew and Greek words for Wisdom and the Spirit of God were feminine; this is an ancient understanding lost when the Greek became Latin and the Spirit of God became masculine instead.

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has built the place herself, carving the entrance from wood or stone. She is wise and accomplished in matters both discerning and practical.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.

Wisdom prepares the table for those who need what she will serve; she oversees every detail of the meal and its presentation.

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Wisdom invites the simple, those without sense, to come and gain maturity and insight. And it fascinates me that it’s not a lecture hall in which the answers will be given, or the Temple or some other place of worship. It’s a house where a banquet will be served, where bread and wine will be shared.

Wisdom comes through the senses, for those without the sense to watch where they are going.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Frank is tough on Tim. He’s tough on everybody. He’s an educated Catholic, the product of Jesuit schools. He is well-read and widely knowledgeable. He is scarred by the world and defends his heart with his intellect. His retorts are smart, and he knows a lot, but he could use a dose of insight about the value of the living people around him, the people, like Tim, who care about him.

We all know people who are smart but have no sense, don’t we?

Yes, I recognize me. I haven’t always been wise. I’ve looked away from where I was headed toward the person I thought others wanted me to be, without enough thought for what God really had in mind or who God made me to be.

Or which step I was about to miss.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank is a homicide detective, and it is his job to look at terrible things and to solve horrible crimes. He is not just disappointed in people. Having seen the depraved way people harm each other, he is disappointed in the God who created them. We can blame God for letting us be free-wheeling … idiots. That seems to be part of the set-up, doesn’t it? We are here walking off steps while looking the other way, as if we didn’t have the sense God gave a goose.

We do worse things, too. Frank wants God to do a better job keeping order, and I sometimes agree with him. We see the terrible things people do to each other, the rough handling and rude dismissals and thoughtless neglect and outright violence.

But here’s what Frank, with all his learning, misses.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

He misses the invitation. And it’s for all of us. Because believe me, no matter how good our grades were once upon a time, no matter how we excel in our work, no matter how well we have developed our gifts and talents, we are all simple. And knowing how we are, God has not left us alone in the world. God came to us in Jesus. God remains with us in the Holy Spirit, at the table of Wisdom.

God calls to us, all the time:
“You that are simple, turn in here.”

We probably wouldn’t want to paint that on the church sign, nor would we buy an ad in the paper saying, “Those without sense, come eat our bread!” And churches are not always the ultimate in wise institutions. We don’t know everything, and we don’t get everything right, with each other or with the world. But the good news is that when we are misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance – even when we’re downright idiotic – and even when we’ve done wrong – we are welcome to turn in here. The doors are open. The coffee is hot. We’re all in the same situation, and some of us are even willing to admit it.

Maybe we’ll even help each other get up again after a fall.

So, please, don’t be an idiot. Thank you. Turn in here. Amen.

*Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney for her insight and scholarship on this passage at Working Preacher.

Audio Sermons, Exodus, Sermons

Bread and Whine

(A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 5, 2012–Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35click here for audio)
Are we there yet?
Has it been five minutes?
How much longer until we get to the beach?
When can we stop and go to the bathroom?
These questions are the not-so-musical refrain of vacation travel. We want to get away. We’ve got to get away. But when you’re traveling with children, these are the questions asked and heard. And asked and heard. And asked and heard.
And whined.  And heard. Sometimes the people asking are not the children.
The Israelites did not have the modern conveniences even of a 2001 Honda Odyssey: the doors that open with a remote control if you’re racing for the car in the rain; the air-conditioning vents aimed at “the way back;” the proliferation of cup holders for the omnipresent water bottles we require for travel. Even still, there were times, with a teenager and a 2nd-grader in the back seat, when the grown-ups in front wished for the kind of panel a limousine driver can close for the privacy of the passengers.
  • When the ear buds slip or the volume is loud and the music of two iPods can be heard.
  • When the boy starts petting the girl’s hair and you hope she doesn’t push back, literally, the way her older brothers would likely have pushed her.
  • When he asks her the same question so many times she finally says, “It’s the same answer as the last time you asked me.”
And then the mamas asked, “Are we there yet?”
The Israelites complained:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3, NRSV)
The Super-Dooper Looper–our kids are on their somewhere.

I’m sure Moses and Aaron felt worse than two dads in the front seat of a minivan.

We’ve brought you out of slavery! We’ve saved you from oppression! We’ve taken you to the beach and Hershey Park! 
Yeah, but when are we going to Disney?
Whine, whine, whine.
It would have been better for God’s own hand to kill us in the land of Egypt, because at least there we had enough to eat.
“Did we bring any snacks? When can we stop for a snack? I’m hungry!”
Honey, we just got started. Hold on. We’ve got 40 years of wilderness to go.
40 years – really, that was a lifetime under those circumstances, a lifetime of wandering and marrying and giving birth and burying the dead and getting into arguments and wondering what God meant by sending the people, so many people, out into the wilderness without the proper provisions.
***Some people say the Israelites needed to wander that long
so no one would be alive to remember Egypt
when the younger generation finally got to the Promised Land. ***
No one would remember the fleshpots – the hot meals in a pot – the meat and the bread that kept them going while they worked for their Egyptian masters.
Really, he got them out of there.

What a relief it must have been to Moses when God promised to rain down bread from heaven!

Maybe the people would believe and be more cooperative!
But if he had already gotten them out of Egypt, with God’s apparent and miraculous help, why didn’t they believe already?
Maybe it’s our nature to question.
Are we there yet?
Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom (God) has sent.” (John 6:28-29, NRSV)
Maybe it’s our nature to question. Which is exactly what makes it, whatever *it* is, hard to believe. We always seem to want more than we have, no matter how much we have. We’re hungry and afraid of starving even when we’re overfed.
I’m not just talking about bread here.
The crowd following Jesus had been fed – as Holly told you last week, the command to sit down and eat meant it was a real, filling meal – but they wanted more. They followed him and asked for a sign. I find this baffling. Turning five loaves and two fishes into a banquet for 5000 people wasn’t enough of a sign for them?
But they wanted to know for certain.
So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”
Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:30-33, NRSV)
“Who are you? Are you the one we’ve been hoping for? Can you show us one more sign, prove it to us one more time?”
Are we there yet?
They wanted to get there in a less confusing way. They had trouble following the route of Jesus’ thoughts. He left them wandering in a wilderness of words.  They knew the stories of their ancestors well. Being fed out of nowhere had a precedent. Jesus had done it, too. But who was he? That’s what they wanted to know. Who was he?
“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
The bread was not enough.
The people wanted more. They wanted to understand. But when he answered, they grew more confused.
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34)
It’s a theme in John’s gospel. Jesus is the living bread, the living water.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
We live in the time of fast food. We can buy just about anything between two pieces of bread or two halves of a roll. Few of us have ever ground wheat by hand. Maybe some of us have baked our own bread. Most of us go right to the store. Hunger was real to the people Jesus met. They knew the complex and time-consuming process of making bread, or drawing water. This man claimed to be the one who would eliminate not only hunger and thirst but the effort required to relieve them.
I am so sure this is a metaphor that I cannot understand not understanding him—except when I can.
“Lucy, have you found your college yet?”
Her seatmate in the back of the van asked this question all through vacation. He is seven and interested in her, and he wants to understand. We tried to explain that you can like some colleges, but then you have to be sure they like you before you can decide which one you like the best. That answer was too complicated, so he asked the question again.
“Lucy, have you found your college yet?”
Finally she said, “It’s the same answer as the last time you asked me.”
Are we there yet?
We are. We’re two thousand years past the people following Jesus, pushing closer to ask him what they need to do, and who in the world, who in heaven, he is. We understand the metaphor.
Well, we understand that there is such a *thing* as a metaphor, that Jesus isn’t actually bread or water.
But are we there yet?
“I am the bread of life.”

We aren’t. Because really being there means taking in what he said, not just in our heads, but in our hearts and bodies. It means really trusting that God will feed us, in the ways that matter, always. It means letting go into believing.

That’s hard.
So we whine, all the way to the Bread.
Are we there yet?
It’s the same answer as the last time we asked. Come to him and never be hungry. Amen.