Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Making a Holy Ruckus" - June 25, 2017



Matthew 10:34-39
“Making a Holy Ruckus”
June 25, 2017

            Let me start this morning by repeating Jesus warning to those who would follow him, that their lives are likely to become disoriented and rearranged in profound ways.  We’re used to the term “an unholy ruckus” but when Jesus shows up, what ensues is often what could be called “a holy ruckus”.  Nonetheless, a ruckus is a ruckus, and you don’t want to head straight into one unaware of what could happen.  Jesus said,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
[Matthew 10:34-39]

            Since Vacation Bible School starts tonight and has “Heroes” as its theme, I’m going to read a hero story that was required reading for Mrs. Evelyn Boyer’s fifth grade class at the Harvey C. Sabold Elementary School in 1975.  It illustrates this passage.  And we’re going to see the pictorial illustrations from that story, both because some of them are kind of fun and because the screen is set up anyway.

            As background, though, it’s important to recall that religious and political issues have always been tangled up and always will be.  In seventeenth-century England, wars were fought over whether the King or the Parliament should have more power, which also a theological argument.  If we all stand as equals before the throne of God, each in need of mercy and each open to God’s grace, doesn’t that mean we should all treat one another equally?  Why should anyone bow, or why should a man even remove his hat, to another human being who is no less a sinner and no more a child of God?

            Such a simple concept, and yet so threatening!

            Anyway, here’s the story as told by Edward Eggleston in A First Book in American History.  It’s about someone whose name should be familiar.

WILLIAM PENN
WILLIAM PENN, who founded Pennsylvania, was born in London, England, in 1644. He was the only son of Admiral William Penn. Admiral Penn had become a captain before he was twenty, and had distinguished himself in naval battles. He was a rich man, lived fashionably, and was received at court. He wanted to make his son William a man of importance in the world like himself. So William Penn was carefully educated. When he was at Oxford he heard a man named Thomas Loe preach against such things as the wearing of gowns by students. It had been the custom for the students in the colleges at Oxford to wear gowns; but the Puritans, who ruled England after Charles I was beheaded, forbade this, having a notion that it was wicked. When King Charles II was restored to the throne, the students were again required to put on gowns. Under the influence of Loe's preaching, Penn and some other young men refused to dress in this way, and they even went so far as to tear off the gowns of other students. For this Penn was expelled from the university.


TEARING OFF A STUDENT’S GOWN
William Penn's father was very angry with his son when he came home expelled. He was afraid that his son would join the Friends, or Quakers, who not only refused to take part in the ceremonies of the English Church, but also refused to serve the king as soldiers, believing war to be wicked. They would not make oath in court, nor would they take off their hats to anybody. Admiral Penn did not like to see his son adopt the opinions and ways of a people so much despised and persecuted.
Hoping that William would forget these impressions, he sent him to France. Here young Penn was presented at the court of Louis XIV, and here he finished his education. He then traveled in Italy, and returned to England when he was twenty years old. His father was well pleased to see that he had improved in manners, and seemed to have forgotten his Quaker ideas.
He was presented at the court of Charles II, and became a law student. He also carried dispatches from his father's fleet to the king. In 1665 the plague broke out in London, and in these sad times William Penn's religious feelings began to return.


His father, hoping to give him something else to think about, sent him to Ireland to attend to some land which belonged to the admiral. Here he was presented at the court of the viceroy, the Duke or Ormond. He served as a soldier for a little while during an insurrection. You will see that his portrait was painted in armor, after the fashion of fine gentlemen of that time. But while Penn was in Ireland, he heard that Thomas Loe, whose preaching had affected him so much when he was a student, was to preach in Cork. Penn went to hear him; all his old feelings revived, and he became a Friend. He now attended the meetings of the Friends, or Quakers, for which he was at length arrested and thrown into prison with the rest of the congregation. He was afterwards set free. His father, hearing of what his son had been doing, sent for him.
Admiral Penn was very angry with William, but he told him that he would forgive him everything else if he would take off his hat to his father, to the king, and to the king's brother, the Duke of York. William took some time to think of it, and then told his father that he could not promise even this. The admiral then turned his son out of doors. But his mother sent him money, and after a time he was allowed to come home, but not to see his father.



William Penn presently began to preach and write in favor of the doctrines of the Friends. He soon got into trouble, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for eight months. The duke of York was a great friend of William Penn's father, and he finally got Penn released from the Tower. The father now gave up opposing his son's religion. William Penn was arrested again in about a year for preaching in the street. He was tried, and spoke for himself very boldly in court. The jury, after listening to him, would not bring in any verdict but that he was guilty of speaking in the street.




The judges were very angry with the jury, but the jurymen would not change their verdict. The judges of that day were very tyrannical. The jurymen in this case were fined, and sent to prison along with William Penn, who was imprisoned for wearing his hat in court. Soon after Penn was released, his father died. The admiral asked the Duke of York to befriend his son, who, he feared, would always be in trouble.
Penn now traveled in England, Wales, Ireland, Holland, and Germany, on his preaching journeys. He used all the influence he had at court with the king and the king's brother, the Duke of York, to get Quakers and other persecuted people out of prison.
The American colonies had come to be a place for people of all religions to flee to when they were troubled in England. Some members of the Society of Friends—Penn among others—began to be interested in West Jersey, a part of what is now the State of New Jersey, as a place of refuge for Quakers.
The English Government owed Penn's father a large sum of money. Charles II was in debt, and found it hard to pay what he owed, so at length Penn persuaded the king to grant him a tract of land on the west side of the Delaware River. The king named this Pennsylvania, in honor of Admiral Penn. William Penn made the laws of his colony such that nobody in it would be troubled because of his religion.

William Penn knew that it would always be necessary for God’s people to struggle to stay faithful to their consciences.  He did not forget Jesus’ words:

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matthew 10:38-39]

In fact, he wrote a book from the Tower of London with the title No Cross, No Crown, in which he urged,
“O come! let us follow Him, the most unwearied, the most victorious Captain of our salvation; to whom all the great Alexanders and mighty Caesars of the world are less than the poorest soldier of their camps could be to them.  True, they were all great princes of their kind, and conquerors, too, but on very different principles.  For Christ made Himself of no reputation to save mankind; but these plentifully ruined people to augment theirs.  They vanquished others, not themselves; Christ conquered self, that ever vanquished them.  He never by compulsion, they always by force prevailed.  Misery and slavery followed all their victories, his brought greater freedom and felicity to those He overcame.  In all they did, they sought to please themselves; in all He did he aimed to please his Father, who is King of kings and Lord of lords.”[1]




[1] William Penn, No Cross, No Crown IV., 5.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

“Marching Orders” - June 18, 2017



Matthew 9:35-10:23


            Evangelism, which is sharing the good news of the kingdom of God’s nearness to all people, is the primary goal that Jesus set for his disciples.  Here is how he said to do it:

“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” [Matthew 10:7-14]

So, when is the last time that you cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed a leper, or cast out a demon?  I’ll get back to that.

            First, though, there’s this business of wandering from town to town without financial resources.  The Bible says that the disciples did that.  In fact, we have written confirmation that other believers followed in their footsteps, but that they had to change strategy within a few years, not because it wasn’t working, but because there were some people who abused the practice and pretty much ruined it for everybody else.  A first-century document called The Didache, which means “The Teaching”, gave advice to communities of Christians in the Middle East.

“Now, about the apostles and prophets: Act in line with the gospel precept.  Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord.  But he must not stay beyond one day.  In case of necessity, however, the next day, too.  If he stays three days, he is a false prophet.  On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging.  If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”[1]

The solution, if an evangelist hung around too long, was that he should work to support himself, which is what Paul did, working as a tentmaker [Acts 18:3] when he stayed in Corinth.  As The Didache warned,

“If, however, he has no trade, use your judgment in taking steps for him to live with you as a Christian without being idle.  If he refuses to do this, he is trading on Christ.  You must be on your guard against such people.”[2]

It’s like large-scale evangelism in the modern age.  Dwight Moody and Billy Graham and even some tent revivalists whose names are long forgotten did it with integrity and the Lord blessed their work.  Others (and I won’t name them here, but you can easily find them on television) used those same methods to make themselves rich, and now anybody who takes that path is suspect. 

            By the way, the solution that The Didache recommended in the first century is the one that I’m going to share for us, too.  It was to say that every local Christian community (let’s even use the word “church”) should stop depending on outsiders for leadership, but should look among themselves and find people whose lives display the gifts of the Spirit who

“are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried.  For their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers.”[3]

So, here we go again.  If it isn’t just to be wandering, Spirit-filled miracle workers, but every disciple who is to do the work that Jesus has begun, when is the last time that you cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed a leper, or cast out a demon?

            Friends, these things happen.  They don’t happen just the same way that they did in Palestine two thousand years ago, in the same way that we don’t have the same cultural setting or speak the same language.  But they do happen, and when they do, the glory is God’s, and

“the kingdom of God has come near.” [Matthew 10:7]

            The sick are healed.  There are people who have the gift of healing.  It may be brought out by years of medical school and internship and residency, or it could be connected to a talent in chemistry that lands them in a pharmacy or in a lab, or it could be the incredible patience of someone who can listen to a loved one with dementia tell the same story for the eighth time in an hour.

            The dead are raised.  Oh, maybe not in the Lazarus- or Dorcas-way that the Bible recounts.  It does happen, though, that maybe someone finds herself giving CPR to multiple people, and you wonder why this one person is right there right when she is needed.  You have to wonder what part the Lord played in that.  And there are those who because they have lost their sense of themselves through joblessness or depression or the simple, inevitable grief that every person experiences at some point.  Someone comes along and is able to restore them in a wondrous way.  I remember a day many years ago when I had been going through a long, rough patch and was just plain exhausted and when it was getting to the point where I just had nothing left inside me, one of my friends called me up and said she was going for a ride that afternoon and that I was going along even if I didn’t want to, because, as she said, “You need to be aired out.”  I’m still grateful for that.

            Leprosy was a disease that was so lethal and contagious that lepers had to be separated from the rest of the world for the sake of public health.  In our time there are outcasts or people who are treated as those who must be kept away or watched carefully for public safety.  Maybe it’s a young, dark-skinned male wearing a hoodie.  Maybe it’s a woman in a hijab.  Perhaps it’s the driver of the Ford truck with a confederate flag bumper sticker.  You decide who that might be for you.  Do they know that they have a place with everyone else? 

            If you want to see where our demons are and where they need to be thrown out, look into the interactions among those people and yourself.  Sometimes we’re called to make peace between others and sometimes we’re called to make peace within our own hearts as preparation for that.  If you see demons at work when you read the news, and if you feel called to cast them out, get involved as Jesus did, by naming them and calling them for what they are.  When God’s people shine the light of Christ on darkness, the darkness leaves.

            Jesus warned that following him could get a little complicated and messy at times.  He said,

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” [Matthew 10:16]

That’s as true now as then.  But where other than in places of need is it more important to share the gospel?  And what place is not one of need?  You don’t have to go far.  You may not have to go anywhere at all.  But wherever Jesus’ followers find themselves, he told his disciples to trust him and he would have their back. So

“do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. [Matthew 10:19-20]

Yes, “through you.”



[1] Translated by Cyril C. Richardson, in Early Christian Fathers (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1970), 176.
[2] Ibid., 177.
[3] Ibid., 178.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

“Teaching Them Everything” - June 11, 2017



Matthew 28:16-20


            Today we are recognizing the achievements of our graduates, people who have worked long and hard to learn many things that will stay with them for the rest of their lives and many things that will be forgotten shortly.  I can tell you the capitals of all fifty states.  I can no longer tell you the valence of a fluorine atom.  I know that pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately 3.14159265359, and that Julius Caesar was killed on March 15, 44 B.C.  When I am tired I often have to look up the spelling of “balloon” because I have the French spelling stuck in my brain next to it.  All of us have an agglomeration of facts like that tucked inside our brains.  In the long run, though, what a good education does is not so much to fill your head with raw data as teach how to organize it, analyze it, and put it to work.  Sometimes that’s called “thinking”.

            Everyone thinks.  Not everyone thinks well.  To do that takes time and effort.  All too often, we’re asked to do our thinking quickly and when that happens it can become hit-or-miss how things turn out.  Influences that have nothing to do with the matter in hand begin to intrude or pertinent information is overlooked.

            Fortunately, it is possible to do some thinking about important matters ahead of time.  I am not saying to be close-minded or to enter into serious situations with your decisions already made.  I am saying that it is a good idea to consider the big questions first, so that the smaller ones, which can also be important, can get the attention that they, too, deserve.  It’s like when you know that the week ahead is going to be busy and you make up dinners that you can microwave as needed.  It allows time to sit down and eat, and takes some of the general pressure off.

            So, what does this have to do with the gospel passage for today?

            In Matthew, we read what is sometimes called “The Great Commission”, where Jesus gives his disciples a concise summary of what they are to do with the rest of their lives:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Teaching (which requires learning, and learning on an ongoing basis) is part of faithfully carrying out Jesus’ directions.  It’s teaching that is aimed at helping people to obey Jesus’ commands, and that takes a lot of forms, which is why our learning takes a lot of forms, too.

            One of the ways that we, as a local church, try to stay faithful to the Great Commission is to provide a variety of resources for learning that are available to anybody who wants to use them.  The rest of this sermon may sound a little like a commercial, and I ask you to excuse me for that, but I want you to realize the wide range of resources sitting right down the hall that are there for you, both to build up your own life in Christ and to know how to help others do the same.  Some of them are from the church library and some of them are found in the staff office.  So, here goes.

            Bibles.  It can often help to read the scriptures in different translations, each trying to catch some of the nuances that are not always easy to transfer from one language to another.

            Bible commentaries.  Some of them are general, like the Interpreter’s Bible (that’s actually on the shelf in the lounge for some reason) or the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, both of which are good at answering questions like: “Why was Jeremiah mad at the Egyptians?” or “Who were the Samaritans?” or “Was the Song of Solomon written as a song?”  Some are commentaries on individual books of the Bible or even on individual passages, like this one on Psalm 23.  Others look at themes that run throughout the Bible or compare the lives of biblical figures to one another and to us – for instance, this copy of Bad Girls of the Bible. 

            That sort of shades over into biography.  How have other people before us faced the challenges of their own times?  Knowing that can help us when we think we may be the only person who has ever had to deal with some situation or another.  Here’s a two-CD set of lectures on that subject by a professor at Georgetown. 

            A big part of discipleship is prayer.  There are a lot of books to help with that.  Some, like Drawing the Circle, that was used as a study guide by a short-term class we held earlier this year, are designed to help people look at their own prayer life and to strengthen it where it can use the help or to put it to use where it is healthy and vigorous.  Others provide words for prayer when you may find yourself fumbling for a way to express what is in your heart, which is a situation everybody faces sometimes.

            Prayer can take the form of music, too.  Hymnals contain expressions of the soul’s experience of God’s grace in its many aspects.  Instrumental music (and we have some recordings, too) can provide a background for prayer or offer its own form of spiritual encouragement.

            Some of the materials are meant to be general and some of them are age-specific.  We have a whole lot of children’s books that are out in the lounge rather than the library because they are intended to be where a parent can grab them more easily if a child is antsy during church or if a parent is on the move, passing to or from the nursery.  There are shelves that are labeled to show that they are meant to address concerns common to youth or to seniors or that address things that can come up in the course of a marriage.

            Add to this the many times that people share helpful articles or devotions on our facebook page, where there is also a link every morning to The Upper Room (and, yes, we still provide it in hard copy, including a large print edition). 

            None of this takes the place of actual ministry, actual discipleship.  That would be to say that reading cookbooks could take the place of eating.  It would be like what happens when people watch sports but never get even a little bit of exercise.  But cookbooks are helpful in the kitchen and watching Serena Williams play can inspire someone to pick up a racquet, so if a copy of The Screwtape Letters can help you recognize and fight off temptation, it’s good to have on hand.

            Through it all, too, is the greatest resource anyone could ever have.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  [Matthew 28:16-20]


Saturday, June 3, 2017

“Would That All God’s People Were Prophets” - June 4, 2017 (Pentecost)




Numbers 11:24-30



            In the spring of 1994, a woman named Alma Snyder announced to the Administrative Council of Salem United Methodist Church in Allentown that she would not accept nomination to that body for the coming year.  Her father, the Rev. I.F. Bergstresser, had been pastor there just before World War I, and she was approaching her 92nd birthday.  She felt she could no longer safely assume that she would be able to complete a three-year term.  (As it turned out, she did go on to glory eight years later.)  The Administrative Council then created the position of Member Emerita for her.  (They made sure it was “Emerita” and not “Emeritus” because she had taught Latin.)  That way she could attend whenever she felt up to it.  The reason they gave was that Alma was someone whose prayer life was deep and who really knew how to hear what God was saying.  That was when Alma spoke out in a really, really prophetic way. 

It’s why they wanted her around, but it didn’t mean they wanted to hear what she said.

           “Now I understand,” she said, “why the Lord has put it on my heart that now is the time to step down.  You’re trusting me to listen for us all, and not listening enough yourselves.”  She thanked them for the special opportunity to serve that they had created, and for their respect and love, but she urged them in a way that only she could have done to respect and love the Lord even more.

            This is Pentecost, folks.  Today is our yearly reminder that the Spirit of the Lord is not just given to the leaders of God’s people, but to everyone together, to the Body of Christ as a whole. 

There are the formally acknowledged leaders, like Moses and the seventy elders that he asked to help him, and there are the informally acknowledged leaders like Alma who gain authority through their wisdom and visible faith.  Thank the Lord for all of them.  Both through study and experience, and through the sharing of wisdom from their predecessors and mentors, they are trained to put to use the gifts that God has placed within them and to do it with a sense of grace that comes from making enough mistakes to have learned that they will never know everything.

            Then there are the Medads and the Eldads, the folks who know a little bit but are, for whatever reason, not always part of the formal structure, to whom the Spirit is also given and who should also be heard and honored.  There they were, back in the camp while Moses and the elders where gathered in the place of worship.  Medad and Eldad were no strangers to the presence of God, but when they began to express their joy in the Lord right where they were, it made the future leader, Joshua, uneasy and his instinct was to shut them down.

“And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’”  [Numbers 11:28-29]

Moses knew when not to get in the way.  He was the leader, but God was in charge.

            Fifty years ago, a Quaker named Elton Trueblood wrote a book for the Church at large called The Incendiary Fellowship, where he lifted up both the worthiness and the danger of professionalism, a quality that North Americans tend to value highly.  He said,

“It always means defeat if we allow religion to be a professional job of a few experts, with the rank and file relieved of all responsibility.  Though it is unreasonable to expect [everyone] to be a qualified engineer, it is not unreasonable to expect each church member to learn to pray and also to learn to tell others of how the love of Christ has reached his life.  Neither prayer nor witness is easy or quickly learned, but both are, by their very nature, part of the vocation of every lay Christian.”[1]

He continued,

“The universality of Christian vocation means that, over and over, God chooses what is weak to shame the strong and that He can use those who have no professional religious skills.  This is how it was in the glorious early days of the Christian Movement, and it must always be so again if renewal is to be genuine.”[2]

            One of the best preachers I have ever known was a man named Robert Watts Thornburgh.  At one point in his life, though, he was a twelve-year-old named Bobby whose grandfather regularly dragged him and his twin brother to Wednesday night prayer meeting and one week, sometime after the second or third hymn, announced to the congregation, “Please bow your heads as Bobby now leads us in a word of prayer.”  That was it right then.  Sink or swim.  No warning.  I imagine Alma Snyder would have admired that move.

            Don’t worry.  I’m not going to do that to anyone – today.  But

“would that all God’s people were prophets!” [Numbers 11:29]

What would happen, do you think, if when you saw somebody write on Facebook something like “Prayers, please, for my brother-in-law who is going through a hard time,” or “Please pray for a co-worker diagnosed with cancer,” instead of just typing, “Praying,” and after a second or two of reflection and scrolling on, you got on the phone with whoever wrote that and said, “I just saw your post and wondered whether we could pray together about it”?  Sure, they’d be surprised.  But if it was really a prayer request and not just a disguised form of gossip, I suspect that it would really be appreciated and not just by that person on the phone but also by the Lord.

            Folks like Medad and Eldad were not the great speakers and poets who came later.  They were not Isaiah and Micah and Jeremiah thundering, “Thus says the Lord!”  They were normal, everyday believers who paid attention.  James Sanders calls them “prophets of the spirit”, writing that

“They spoke of themselves, or were spoken of, as so moved by or filled with the spirit that they were able to say and do things they would not otherwise have done.  One thinks of the memorable wish of Moses expressed in Numbers 11:29; ‘O, that all the Lord’s people were prophets that he might pour his spirit upon them!’”[3]

What happened to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, and what has happened repeatedly in different ways ever since, was that God did exactly that.  All of God’s people were given words they didn’t know were in them to share with people whose ways were totally alien to them. 

All of God’s people felt the wind of the Spirit blowing through the room where they had gathered, a gale that would propel some of them to all corners of the known world and beyond.  Tradition, although not scripture, holds that from their base in Jerusalem Mary Magdalene went on to what is now southern France and that James traveled to Spain while Thomas died in India and there’s pretty good archaeological evidence that Peter was martyred in Rome.  From their sharing of, as another of them, John, put it:

“what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” [I John 1:1]

others also came to faith and came to have a living relationship with the Almighty through Jesus and to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit.

            Not to put down the professionals, but Trueblood again puts it well when he says that

“Perhaps the most striking feature, from our contemporary point of view, is that all of the early Christians were missionaries.  They did not leave the evangelistic task either to professional evangelists or to pastors to whom they paid salaries, for these did not exist.  As we read in the truly exciting story of the early Church, persevering as it did in the face of incredible odds, we sense the difference between the task of merely supporting missionaries and of being missionaries.  The early Church did not have a missionary arm; it was a missionary movement.”[4]

The clergy, the administrative structures, the Sunday School, the choirs, the summer camps, the staff – we’re all here to help everyone do their part.  And what we cannot do, rest assured that the Holy Spirit can, and will.

            A joyous and blessed Pentecost to all of you Medads and Eldads, Moseses and Joshuas, to the young people with visions and the old people with dreams, and to everybody in between.




[1] Elton Trueblood, The Incendiary Fellowship (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 113.
[2] Ibid., 114.
[3] James Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 63.
[4] Trueblood, 112.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

“The Between Times” - May 28, 2017



Acts 1:6-14


            You know how you have a scene from a movie in your head and you can see it clearly, but cannot figure out what movie it’s from?  That’s the spot I’m in on this one.  It was either in a Marx Brothers movie or it’s from the Three Stooges.  It takes place in New York in the days of black and white film.  A man visits a doctor, and at the end of the exam, the doctor tilts the patient’s head back and tells him to hold that position for fifteen minutes, then sees him to the door.  The next thing we see, the man is leaving the building and stops for a traffic light at the corner.  As he stands there with his neck craned back, people begin to look up to see what he’s watching, and the more people are looking up, the bigger the crowd that gathers.  You hear them murmuring, and some are pointing at something way up toward the top of the building, and they are just beginning to get agitated, with police joining them, as the light changes and the man walks away, unaware of much at all. 

It’s not a very pious thought, I confess, but that’s how I picture how the disciples must have looked after Jesus had ascended to heaven and left them looking up into the clouds.  If you saw somebody suddenly start to levitate and then fade away into who knows where, don’t you think you would stare?  Wouldn’t you, honestly, question whether you were going crazy, especially if the disappearance were followed by seeing and hearing someone who hadn’t been there before the other guy vanished?

“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.”

In other words, “Expect more of this.”  That really clears things up.

            We call this event Jesus’ ascension.  We might as well call it the disciples’ confusion.  Part of me, wonders, too, if that isn’t part of the way that Jesus intentionally keeps his followers off-balance, maybe with a little sense of humor about it.

            As he was on his way, Jesus told the people he knew would be staring into heaven that their job was to pay attention to earth.  They were to wait for the Holy Spirit, which would give them new marching orders and send them off in every direction.

“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.” 

Ever since then, Jesus’ followers have been left to live with these tensions.  We’re supposed to be practical, sensible people who also believe in miracles.  We’re left with one foot in heaven and one on the ground.

            The theologian Karl Barth referred to this state as “living between the times”.  We live on the cosmic scale and the scale of daily life, between eternity and time, with Jesus being our link to eternity.  God and his ways are unknowable, but we do know Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

“Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known world . . . as Christ Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above.”[1] 

I like the way that Barth pictures all of that in the shape of a cross.  Jesus has come into the world, he has done the work of redemption that nobody else could do.

But then we are left to see how God’s redemption of the world unfolds around us.  In some ways, it even depends on us.  It takes a whole lot of people willing to say,

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”

to bring the kingdom.  We want to have Jesus do it all for us, but he won’t even answer the question “When?”

“‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [Acts 1:6-7]

Again, it puts it back on us to live with the tension and excitement of the waiting, of the living in the between-times. 

We live in a time of imperfection, but look to a time of perfection.  We live in a time of sadness, but we see those who mourn being comforted.  We live in a time of poverty, sometimes of spirit and sometimes physical poverty – most often of both together – but we are moving toward a time when we see that they shall be satisfied and the kingdom of God itself will be theirs.  We live in the between-times.  That is inevitably awkward.  The prophet Isaiah [11:6] looked to a time when

“The lion and the lamb shall lay down together.”

Woody Allen adjusted that to: “The lion and the lamb shall lay down together, but the lamb shall not get much sleep.” 

            That’s where it becomes so very important that we bear witness, as Jesus told us, to the coming kingdom, because unless we are ready to do that then all that is left in this world is the vision of things as they are and not as they – I almost said, “might be” but should say “are becoming”.  Jesus has shown us the way that he is changing the world already and understands the position that puts us in.  Yet John tells us that as he prepared for his death he prayed for his followers, and said,

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” [John 17:14-15]

            The poet Malcolm Guite, who is also chaplain to Girton College in Cambridge, wrote about how knowing that Jesus watches over us from eternity gives us confidence to live the in-between life, and I’ll finish this morning with his words:

“We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.”[2]





[1] Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans 29, cited at https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230446/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/papers/vol2/520102-Karl_Barth%27s_Conception_of_God.htm
[2] Malcolm Guite, “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/a-sonnet-for-ascension-day/