Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Now What??

Acts 1: 1-11
This is the season of cliffhangers.  I don’t watch television with any regularity but there are one or two shows that I try to never miss.  Grey’s Anatomy is one of them although I’ve had a love hate relationship with the show since a couple of years ago the cliffhanger involved some serious, scary and very needless violence throughout the entire show.  I was so disturbed by it that I didn’t watch the show for an entire year.  It didn’t help that at the time I was an overnight chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital and had to roam the corridors of that big place from the sleep room to the ER. 

But, I forgave Grey’s and became a viewer again.  Two weeks ago I watched the cliffhanger that wrapped up this season.  It was gory but not necessarily violent and it has certainly peaked my interest for next year. Who will leave the show?  Who will stay?  Whose career as a doctor on TV will change?  What’s going to happen next? Cliffhangers leave us yearning for answers and conclusions.    

Jesus’ Ascension is a cliffhanger.  We are left wondering and waiting, what happens next?  The Book of Acts picks up exactly where the Gospel of Luke drops off with the Ascension of Jesus.  That’s because scholars believe the author of Luke is the very same author of Acts.  In Luke we are told of the stories and ministry of Jesus and Acts contains stories of the life and works of the early church and the people involved with it.  What divides the two are the Ascension and Pentecost that we will celebrate next week. 

It is forty days after Christ’s resurrection, and the Ascension marks a pivotal moment in scripture where Christ makes his physical departure from this earth.  He takes his leave.  Let’s read the account from the Book of Acts and then unpack the meaning it holds for us.

 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘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. 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’

I can only imagine that this was a rather unusual experience for Jesus’ disciples, but by now they were used to unusual occurrences with their friend Jesus.  He provided them fairly regularly with out of the ordinary situations and learning experiences.  In fact, most everything he did was out of the ordinary from miracles and healings to dining with outcasts to scriptural interpretation, and being raised from the dead.  Why would Jesus actually leaving this earth be any different?

Now this was not some ‘beam me up Scotty’ type of Ascension but rather it appears to be a gentle taking of his leave and in his stead were two men in white robes.  ‘Why do you look up?’ they ask.  And then they reassure the men of Galilee, ‘he will come again, just like he went’.  Still in all, I would have been a little skeptical at this.  I don’t know about you but my head would have been frozen in the looking up at the clouds position like the disciples.   

That was it?  It’s all over?  The last three years…were they an enigma?  Was it just a figment of our first century imagination?  Did all of this really happen?  Did any of this really happen?  He was here and now he is gone.  We were at our fishing boats in the Galilee and now we are city slickers in Jerusalem.  We had this amazing experience and NOW WHAT?  Now what?

No doubt they were changed.  Unbelievable experiences, whether they are pleasant, exciting or tragic and sad will always change us.  Questions swirl in our heads and hearts; what am I supposed to do next?  How do I go on living?  What’s my purpose if my former reality has changed? How do I reorient myself toward healthy, hopeful living?

It’s as if your life was full and then a vacuum comes and sucks all of the life out of it leaving you empty and uncertain.  It’s the silence after a piercing explosion.

I am reminded of this ‘time after’, this ‘now what’ question especially on Memorial Day weekend and to a larger extent on Veterans Day.  So many men and women warriors did not make it home alive and their families had to reorient themselves to a life without their loved one.

Their courage in the battle for liberty, in the fight to do the right thing issues to families the question ‘now what?’ when they do not return.  How do we go on living, how do we find meaning when the rest of the world continues on its merry way? 

And vets will have to reintegrate themselves back into a more or less functioning society when they have had an experience like no other.  For some vets, it works.  For others it becomes a life long struggle with destructive behavior.

For non-believers in a divine it is a cliffhanger without resolution.  For us Christians, two men in white robes appear and offer a different course, a new way of seeing.  For us, now what?, really becomes what’s next!  Christ’s ascension is not without resolution.  Jesus does not leave them hanging, this is not a cliffhanger where you have to wait three months to see what happens.  Jesus leaves them with a promise of his abiding presence through the spirit to come.  The cliff that we cling to really is the mighty rock of our salvation.

Through the resurrection of Christ we have vision and hope.  We know that there is a future that we will eventually get to because promises were made; Jesus died and he rose and we can only believe that he will come again.  The apostle Paul reminds the people of Ephesus “...so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (1:18) 

With a heart enlightened, you can see into a mirror dimly and envision the future path that you need to take. With a heart enlightened, you will see that you are not left alone to answer the question, now what?  The person next to you is there to help you and console you.  It is the beauty of being a church community that the disciples eventually did understand. With hearts enlightened church began.  With a heart enlightened there is hope.

The great good news of today is that when Jesus rose to heaven it’s not even close to being the end of the story.  The spirit will come, as promised but that my friends is the story for next week!


Monday, May 14, 2012

Three Moms and a Baby

Exodus 2: 1-10
I could have very easily entitled this sermon ‘Five Moms and a Baby’ since there really are five prominent women who take the opening two chapters of the Book of Exodus by storm.  There are the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah and then three unnamed women of which we will hear more about in a minute.

Exodus opens with a new King arising over Egypt.  He could care less about Joseph which was bad for the Israelites who, by now, were tipping the population charts in their favor. This did not make for a happy Pharaoh by any means.  So he made their lives miserable, more miserable than usual. Forced labor, imposing menial and backbreaking tasks, Pharaoh was ruthless.

He orders the midwives of the Hebrews, Shiphrah and Puah to murder all of the male children when they were born.  But they did not.  They loved God, they feared God and they let the little boy babies live.  “Why did you do this?” yelled Pharaoh.  “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” they said.  “The Hebrew women give birth too fast before any respecting midwife can get to them.” They answered.  Sneaky?  Yes!  Did they save lives?  Most definitely.
"Baby Moses" by He Qi

God liked their acts of civil disobedience!  Shiphrah and Puah stood up to the mighty Pharaoh and they were rewarded by God; they had families of their own and the Hebrews became even more prolific and strong.  But Pharaoh continued on his murderous rampage and life dragged on for the Hebrews.

Let’s pick up Exodus the 2nd chapter.

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.  The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.
His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it.  When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said.

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it.  When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son.  She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’

Enter three more women, all unnamed.  There was the mother of Moses who, later in chapter 6 is named as Yocheved.  There was Pharaoh’s daughter who was the Princess and then there was Moses’ sister whom we later know to be Miriam.  But for now, we don’t know anything of these women.  All we know of is their motherly acts toward this little baby boy.  It doesn’t matter whether one was the birth mother and the others adoptive mothers, all, in some way acted as mother to Moses.

I always struggle with preaching on Mother’s Day.  It can be quite sensitive for some women on so many levels, I understand that.  It can illicit sadness and emptiness for some or dashed dreams for others.  It can affirm decisions made by some and it can remind others of their remarkable or unremarkable relationships with own their mothers.  Mother’s Day is a joy filled with complications.  But so is life because we are relational creatures.

I do believe though that we miss an opportunity for theological reflection if we let the day pass by.  If we are all, male and female, mother and father, created in God’s image then God has a stake in Mothers Day and the inherent gift that nurturing women possess. Men, you too have been given these gifts so don’t turn down the volume on your set.

God had a very large stake in our story from Exodus.  God’s providential handprints are all over this story of mothers – birth mothers, adoptive mothers and siblings who act in motherly roles are the ones who love and nurture Moses, the future leader of the Israelites who will eventually lead them out of slavery into the promised land.  What God needs to accomplish, God will through unlikely sources and the most usual circumstances.

Who knew that the one who would lead a great band of people out of slavery, provide for their needs and eventually get them to their promised land would be birthed, nurtured and grown by five women?    If Moses were alive today surely he would be a candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch.
Sometimes our mothering comes from unlikely sources and unusual people.  People whom you would never think could possibly give you what a mother can give which is unconditional love, nurture, support, and a space to grow, really is the person who can extend that motherly love.

And what is motherly love?  Well in the case of Moses it was Shiphrah and Puah whose willful disobedience of Pharaoh let little boy babies live.  They did the right thing rather than the ordered or expected thing.  As a mother I had to advocate tirelessly for one of my children, threatening the educational system with legal action so that he could get the resources he needed. 

It was Moses birth mother who unselfishly floated him away so that he could have a chance at life.  We hear of heart rending decisions that women make who cannot care for their child and give them up for adoption or place them in the care of another family member. 

It was his sister who so lovingly protected him and watched out for him when his own mother couldn’t be there.  Foster mothers, grandmothers, even siblings are those who step in so that a child has parental influence in their lives, and it was Pharaoh’s daughter who was able to nurture him and provide for him, and who was compassionate towards him. Through these women God acted.  Through these women God’s compassionate and maternal nature is shown.

God has the capacity to love us beyond all human understanding.  Which is a very good thing, believe me.  We cannot fathom the wideness of God’s mercy, to do so would place upon God human constraints and shortcomings.  But we can know God through the love and the faces of others. 
This is why Mother’s Day is a joy filled with complications. There are disappointments to be sure but God gives you what you need through others who provide you with mothering love.

Today is about mothers but it is more about God who acts through mothers. We all need motherly love no matter our age. We all can extend motherly love and let God work through us.

A friend of mine, Eva, began an organization named “Mothers’ Day Movement” after she read an article by Nickolas Kristoff in the New York Times. He noted that we spend around $14 billion on Mother’s Day. MDM encourages people to donate money, that would have been spent on gifts and food, to a well researched organization that benefits mothers on a global level. Each year is different.

This year it is ‘Saving Mothers’ an organization that aims to reduce maternal mortality in childbirth in underdeveloped countries.

This is God working through one mother to make other mothers lives better.

May the mothering spirit of God be with you today and may all of your tomorrows being filled with divine maternal presence.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Twined Together, Abiding in Love

John 15: 1-8

Our scripture from the Gospel of John today is the last of the “I am” statements that we find only in this Gospel.  “I am what I am” is not one of them; that “I am” statement belongs to Popeye.  Jesus is more concrete when he claims, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, and I am the way, the truth and the life.  Finally Jesus says, I am the vine and God is the vine grower.  Our morning’s scripture for reflection is from the Gospel of John, fifthteenth chapter.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I’ve never had a vineyard, or even one grapevine but I do know that there are certain wise and prudent practices that must happen in order to grow healthy, delicious grapes.  I’m sure that you winemakers are very aware of what makes for a really grape good.  Grape plants need to be planted in soil with good drainage, they need lots of warm sun and they should be trained to grow on a trellis so that the grapes can grow freely and unencumbered and so that fungus doesn’t decide to take up residence and ruin it for everybody.

Grapevines also need to be pruned like most all flowering and fruit producing plants.  In fact it is essential for the vines to be pruned.  The best grapes that the vine produces are closest to the central vine, that’s where the nutrients are concentrated.  You can’t let the other little shoots and branches ramble on their merry way because they will steal the energy that is needed for healthy fruit.  When that happens you wind up with puny and less fruit.  Sounds simple, right?  Probably not so much however in application.

Vines, vineyards, branches and grapes, planting and pruning, Jesus uses plain practical illustrations in metaphorical form to introduce priorities for Christian living. The disciples were salt of the earth kind of guys.  Farmers, fishermen, grape growers, boat makers, when it came to their lot in life and their stature they were plain old folk, unpretentious and unassuming, hard working and struggling.

But now, added to the daily challenges of their first century agricultural life, they are trying to define what it means to live in community with one another in a contentious land and as followers of Jesus who are bound together by his love and commands.  This challenge too is not so different for us Jesus-followers today. 

Like the person sitting across from you in the pews, and the ones in the balcony and the one in the pulpit, we each desire to make meaning for our lives, to engage in meaningful work, to love and to be loved, to do the ‘right’ things in life, to be accepted for who we are, and to have our soul fed and nurtured.  And, we each have been given gifts for ministry.  How do we negotiate our special and unique gifts alongside of and maybe even twisted around one another like branches on a vine do? 

How do we live in community while utilizing our gifts in a culture that promotes individualism and self-expression?  None of us are mavericks! John’s passage illustrates this and challenges our Western way of thinking.  It’s not about ‘me’ it’s about us.  Even in this culture of self-expression and individualism we are taught here by Jesus to remain interwoven together on the branch that God has lovingly grown for us.  When we remain as branches on a vine, taken care of by God we are never alone and we will produce rich and succulent fruit.

We live in Christian community so that when tragedies happen in Wilton or her surrounding areas like they did this past week we can grieve together the loss.  We can comfort and console one another through words of encouragement and acts of love.  We pray together to strengthen ourselves and the people affected by tragedy. We come to church and find community in our common lot, where we can sit beside one another and know, perhaps even without using words, that we share a common bond.  This is the very best of the church; branch’s twined together in Christ.  

And what keeps us twined together is that we abide in Christ as he abides in us.  And we know that he was all about love.  Sweet love, tender love, correcting love, motivating love.  Love is the motivation for all that we do and all that we say.  “The mark of community is how it loves, not who are its members”, says Candler School of Theology, Dean Gail O’Day.  What matters is that we love deeply and thoughtfully together.

Abide in love; Christ in us and we in him.  Abide, that is to live. It’s not a word that we probably use too often, sounds a little ‘Old English’ to me.  Eugene Peterson in The Message, hears it as “Live in me.  Make your home in me just as I do in you.”  Jesus is the life giving vine in which we are to make our home.  It is to be an “intimate and organic” relationship.

He is where your love is to reside.  And, more important you are where Jesus resides and when Jesus resides or abides in you, you can endure anything that comes your way.  When you acknowledge that he abides in you then you can bear the toll that living takes.  Once he stakes claim in you, once he moves in and puts out the welcome mat, he never leaves.  Knowing this enables us to overcome the adversities and distractions that are present to us each day. 

Even elderly folks in a nursing home, with all varying degrees of mental illness and dementia will remarkably join in the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm or one of their favorite hymns when they seemingly are completely out of it.  That’s because Christ took up residence in their hearts and never left even though their mind has.  “Abide in me”, he says.

The disciples dropped their fishing nets, left their homes but they were never homeless.  Live in me, abide in me was Jesus’ invitation to them and it is here they found their home.  Let us also live in Jesus where countless others have made their home; twined together abiding in love.