Tuesday, July 7, 2020

“Blinded” - July 5, 2020


Text: Acts 9:1-19

Acts is the story of the gospel spreading throughout the Mediterranean world.  There are some key moments in that story, hinge points that dramatically affect the future of the fledgling church.  And perhaps none is bigger than the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. 

You probably know the story.   Saul was a Pharisee, scrupulous in following the law.  He was concerned about this sectarian movement within Judaism that followed a would-be messiah named Jesus.  This growing movement was seen by many as a threat to orthodox faith.  Saul’s job was to combat this movement, and he did his job very well.  A couple of weeks ago, we read the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and learned that a young man named Saul was there, watching everybody’s coats.  Later we read that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, committing them to prison.”

That brings us to this morning’s scripture.  Saul has gotten the OK from the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus, looking for followers of the Way, as followers of Jesus were called, so that he could arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem.

But Saul’s plans are suddenly turned upside down.  On the way to Damascus, he is knocked to the ground and blinded by a flash of light.  There is a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul asks who is speaking and the answer is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Saul is suddenly and dramatically met by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and nothing was ever the same again.  Saul went from being the great persecutor of the church to the great missionary of the church who brought the gospel to the Gentiles.  We know him better as Paul, the name he was known by in those Gentile and Greek-speaking lands.

It is an amazing, dramatic conversion.  And I’ve got to admit: my experience is light years away from Saul’s.  Faith came slowly and gradually for me, not all at once.  There was no blinding light or voice from heaven.  I had not been a persecutor of the church or lived a terrible life.  I really didn’t have a chance – I mean, I was nine years old when I made a profession of faith and was baptized. 

We may find Saul’s conversion to be fascinating, powerful, miraculous, we might find it to be a lot of things, but chances are, we have a hard time relating to it personally.  For most of us, meeting Jesus does not involve being blinded on the road to Des Moines.  However, there is another conversion taking place in this story, one that may be closer to what often happens in our lives.

Saul had been knocked to the ground by what had happened.  Jesus told him to get up and go into the city.  He rose to his feet but could not see.  His traveling companions helped him along.  He went to Damascus and for three days he did not eat or drink.  Saul might have figured that it was all over for him.

Then Ananias enters the story.  We really don’t know anything about him except that he was a disciple in Damascus.  He is only mentioned in the Bible in this passage and in Acts 22, when Paul retells the story of his conversion.  He may have been a resident of Damascus, but it is very possible that he was in Damascus as a refugee.  Perhaps he had left Jerusalem because of the persecution that Saul himself was leading.

Ananias has a vision.  God tells him to go to Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight.  And Ananias says to God, “Say what?  You have got to be kidding!  Saul wants to see people like me dead!”

Ananias is trying to his best to steer clear of Saul, and God wants him to go see Saul!  “But the Lord said to (Ananias), ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.’”

Maybe the biggest miracle in this story is that Ananias listens to God and goes to Saul.  He has serious doubts.   But he went in faith, and maybe the most amazing words in this passage are these: “Brother Saul.”  “Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’”

Ananias shows an incredible amount of faith and grace.  He is a model of welcome and hospitality.

Paul became the great missionary of the church, establishing and encouraging churches and spreading the faith throughout the Mediterranean world.  He wrote a good bit of the New Testament.  We all know about Paul.   But where would Paul be without Ananias? Without one to be God’s instrument of healing?  Without one to welcome him and introduce him to the Christian community?

People come to Christ in many ways.  Sometimes in dramatic fashion, like Paul.  For most of us, it is in much quieter, less flashy ways.  But we all have opportunities like Ananias – to offer God’s welcome and grace to others.

Paul had to seem like the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus.  It did not even seem in the realm of possibility.  But the core of our faith is the idea that change is possible, right? - that God can bring about new life.  We may want to give up on others, but God never gives up on anyone.  If Saul could change, anybody can change.

Saul’s background helped make him the great apostle of the early church.  He was learned and well-versed in the scriptures.  He moved easily in Jewish circles and in academic circles.  He had the gifts necessary to lead the church.  God called him and transformed his heart, and the skills he had used to persecute the church were now used to build up the church.

The conversion of Saul helps us to see that conversion is not simply a private matter.  It wasn’t simply between Saul and God, or even Saul and God and Ananias.  The entire community at Damascus is apparently as accepting and trusting of Saul as was Ananias.  This former enemy is immediately baptized into the family of faith and then sits down to eat a meal with them.  After being nurtured by this remarkable Damascus community for only a few days, Saul is ready to begin his ministry for Jesus. 

Like Ananias, God calls us to extend God’s welcome to the stranger, to invite into the family of faith  those who may be on the outside, realizing that in one way or another that includes all of us.  It may mean taking the initiative in going to those who are difficult to call brother or sister.

And conversion is not a one-time deal.  It is a continuing journey.  We continue to learn, to grow, to be surprised by life and surprised by God, as Ananias was.  You might even say that despite having seen the amazing work of the Spirit in the life of the church, Ananias himself was a little bit blind to the ways that God might work, and that this was a conversion of sorts for him as well.

I have actually been thinking about this idea of blindness and being able to see lately – the notion that this pandemic and all that has happened over these past months has in a sense helped us to see what we did not see before.  You migth think of this as an apocalyptic time, and in a sense it really is.  The word apocalypse literally means revealing.  Things are being revealed.

Millions of people live paycheck to paycheck, and the disparities of income are only widening.  The pandemic has shown a spotlight on that.  Have you seen on the news the lines of people in their vehicles, lined up for miles and waiting for hours for food to be distributed?  Or folks lined up outside on the sidewalk waiting 6 or 7 hours to have a chance to sign up in person for unemployment benefits?  And all of this was before the moratorium on evictions was lifted.  The need will only grow. 

Pervasive racial injustice has come into full view.  People of color have suffered far more from the pandemic, and then so many instances of brutality toward black people, including but extending far beyond the killing of George Floyd, have made the issue impossible to ignore.

I went to what I would consider good schools.  I consider myself a well-informed person.  Yet in the past few months, I have time and again realized how little I knew.  Somehow I did not know that following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, peonage systems existed in many southern states.  Black men could be arrested for minor offenses, even things like not holding down a steady job, and sent to prison where they would be leased out to landowners to work the fields – essentially a continuation of slavery.  How did I not know that?

I had heard the term redlining, and had a general idea of what it was, but did not know how pervasive or how awful it was, destroying entire communities.  Why did I not learn these things in school?  It might be because our whole culture has been wearing blinders.  I just learned a few weeks ago that people who can’t afford bail and have to stay in jail until trial are charged jail fees, and along with court costs and fines and interest, indigent people with no ability to pay can easily rack up 15 or $20,000 in debt – sometimes even if they are innocent.  Iowa is one of the worst states for this. 

This has been an eye-opening time.  We may not have been struck down on the road to Damascus, but all of this is to say that we can be blind about a lot of things.  And we all need humility, because we don’t know what we don’t know and we cannot see what we can’t see.

Saul was blinded so that he might come to truly see.  There may be a lot that we do not see.  We can be blind to the people around us, blind to the way our actions affect others, sometimes blind to family members, blind even to the truth about ourselves.  We are imperfect people.  We have blind spots, all of us.  And we are all deeply loved by Christ, who offers us amazing grace and leads us to new life and helps us to see.  As the hymn says, “I once was blind but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

God comes to us in our blindness, in our need, perhaps sending someone like Ananias to help us.  So that we can see.  And so that we may be instruments of Christ’s hope and healing.  Amen.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

“On the Wilderness Road” - June 28, 2020

Text: Acts 8:26-39

Video




Did you know that this is National Deacon Week?  Well, it’s not really, I just kind of made that up, but both last Sunday and this Sunday, our scripture has focused on deacons, so it may not be national, but it has sort of been Deacon Week.  Philip is one of the first deacons appointed in the scripture we read last Sunday, along with Stephen and five others.  He is a trailblazer.  As we read a few minutes ago, an angel tells Philip to go down the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. 

And Philip goes, no questions asked.  This was no small thing.  He was a deacon, and his calling was to care for physical needs of the people.  Getting up and leaving on a moment’s notice to travel to a faraway place at the behest of an angel was not exactly what he had signed on for.  But as is so often the case, 90% of the job was “other duties as needed,” and he went.

Philip was told to travel that wilderness road, and we do have some idea of what that is like.  In fact, it feels like we are in the wilderness just now.  I don’t know if any of you are counting, but this is our 13th Sunday of worshiping via Zoom.  We know what it is to be facing the unknown.  We know what it is to be in a new place that feels insecure and uncertain and frightening.

Stephen had been martyred for his faith.  Many of the believers had scattered.  Philip had been preaching and ministering in Samaria. And then an angel tells Philip to take the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  But Philip went immediately.  He has no question that this is what he was supposed to do.

On this road, this wilderness road, he comes along an Ethiopian eunuch who had been to Jerusalem to worship.  This man works for the Candace of Ethiopia as the treasurer.

There is a lot packed into that description.  This man from Ethiopia had traveled to Jerusalem to worship.  If that sounds odd, there was in fact a Jewish community in Ethiopia, as there is to this day.  It dates from pre-exilic times, before the Jews in Jerusalem were taken to captivity in Babylon, so it is a very ancient community.  This man is reading the scroll of the book of Isaiah, but he seems unfamiliar with it.  So perhaps he was a convert to Judaism or someone known as a God-fearer, a person interested in and taking instruction in the Jewish faith.

So, he is either a Jew or at least he is Jew-ish – interested in Judaism.  We know that he is a high government official in Ethiopia.  He is the treasurer for the Candace.  Candace was a title for the queen of Ethiopia, but don’t you prefer Candace?  It sounds more exotic than a garden-variety queen.

We know that this man is very wealthy.  He is traveling in a chariot.  And he has a scroll of Isaiah, which few individuals would possess personally.  He was certainly well-educated.   His skin tone was darker than that of most people in Jerusalem.  And, he was a eunuch.
 
People were made eunuchs for a reason.  Eunuchs were entrusted with things – like money, like a harem, like an important position.  It wasn’t unheard of for a royal family member to be castrated – so that they could not be king, so they could be trusted not to lead a coup.  This was someone the empire had done violence to.

According to Leviticus, eunuchs were not to be allowed in the temple.  They were thought of as less than whole, almost less than fully human.  But in a big reversal, Isaiah 56 welcomes eunuchs into the temple.  And guess what this man was reading?  He was reading from Isaiah and asks specifically about a passage from Isaiah chapter 53.

In wealth, in race, in class, in sexuality, in family life, in their relation to government and power, in what many would have seen as fitness for worship in the temple, Philip and this man could not be any more different.

I love the way the Bible describes the encounter: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.”  Either this chariot was in very slow gear, or Philip was one heck of a runner.  He runs alongside the chariot, carrying on a conversation.  And he asks this man, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Ethiopian invited Philip to join him in the chariot.  In the course of their conversation, the eunuch asks three questions which we might all do well to consider.  First, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?”

We all need an interpreter, a guide, a mentor. This Ethiopian man had the wisdom to ask for help.  Some of us are not so good at that. 

This man was motivated to acquire an Isaiah scroll at what must have been great expense.  He was seeking faith and understanding, and Philip was privileged to be his guide.  It is interesting that the man did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide.  A guide takes part in showing the way.  A guide says, "I will walk alongside you."

Think about this: when he got up that morning, when he sat down for his oatmeal and toast and coffee, never in his wildest dreams did Philip imagine that before the day was over, he would be sitting in a chariot next to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia, having a conversation about the book of Isaiah and about Jesus.

Laura Everett says that to really share the gospel, we need to sit down next to people who are wildly different than us.  We may not end up sitting in a chariot next to an Ethiopian eunuch before the day is over.  But in a world in which it is easy to exist in a bubble with people just like we are, we would do well to develop relationships with folks who are different than us.

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty held its annual luncheon on Friday.  The BJC has a singular focus on protecting religious liberty and defending the separation of church and state, which are two sides of the same coin.  I had not attended this luncheon before, but since it was online this year, I was there, as I know a couple of you were.  The main part of the luncheon was very interesting, a helpful interview with Robert Jones about American religion and white supremacy.  But then afterwards, they made a financial appeal.  For me, the appeal was just gripping.

A young woman, Sofi Herscher, told her story.  She is a board member but she is not Baptist.  She is not even a Christian.  She is Jewish.  When she was nine years old, she watched her synagogue go up in flames in a fire set by right-wind Christian nationalists.  She thought that all Christians hated her.  But it was an interfaith group of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs that came to that community’s aid in that terrible summer and stood by them. 

Years later she became the first non-Christian BJC Fellow, a program for young professionals.  She was drawn by the organization’s dogged pursuit of religious liberty for all people.  She could see supporting that vision as a member of a minority faith but could not understand it from the majority perspective.  Why did they think freedom for all was so important?  She learned a lot.  She learned it was about faith, not power, and she learned, in her words, that Baptists were “super, super complicated.”

She had a moving testimony, and it was a reminder that it is important to walk alongside folks who are different than we are. 

Second question: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  The Ethiopian had been reading from the Suffering Servant passages.  Who was this suffering servant?  Was it the writer himself, or someone else?  The basic question was, “Who is this all about?”

It’s another good question.  “What is the center of our faith?” Luke, the author of Acts, says that Philip began to speak, and starting with this Scripture, he shared with this man the good news about Jesus.

Who is this all about?  What we do here every week – who is this about?  In the end, it is not about us, it is not about our church, it is not about our denomination, it is not about great music or awesome programs.  It is clearly not about our leading edge technology.  There is a place for all of these things, but we are to point to Jesus, who is at the center of our faith.

We all need a guide, and Jesus is the best guide we have.  He guides us with a simple directive: love one another.  It’s that simple, and it’s that difficult.  His command to “love one another” means listen to one another, consider the needs of others, sacrifice for the sake of others.  Be servants and friends, not rulers and enemies.

And then the third question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Most of us probably don’t being inquiries by asking, “What would prevent me?”  But this man has a history of being prevented from all kinds of things.  He has been prevented from having children, from having a family.  He has been prevented from holding power in his own right.  And by tradition, he had been prevented from worship in the temple.

What was to prevent him from being baptized, from becoming a part of the community of faith?  Well, we could make a list:  he was a person of complicated sexuality.  He was a foreigner who served a foreign ruler.  Despite being Secretary of the Treasury, in that culture’s way of thinking, he was in the end a nobody, a man without family, without heirs, without descendants.  He had reason to think that he might be prevented.

But the answer to his question is obvious.  What was to prevent him?  Nothing.  Nothing at all. 

What is there to keep us from being baptized?  What is to keep us from living the new life in Christ?  What is to keep us from making Jesus the center of our lives?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.

This story is sometimes called the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  By tradition he is credited with bringing the gospel to Ethiopia and beginning the church there.  But we might also think of this as a turning point, a point of conversion, for Philip.

Philip is not a first-generation disciple, not one of the original disciples.  He is kind of a second-round draft choice, not a star but more of a role player.  But he suits up, he does his job, he is faithful, and the next thing you know he is ministering to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia.  Philip is the one the Spirit chooses for this barrier-breaking assignment.  The Spirit leads him to this place, and it becomes clear to Philip that the Good News of Jesus is for everybody.

Like Philip, like this man from Ethiopia, we are all welcome in God’s family.  There is nothing at all to prevent us from following Jesus.  Nothing at all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.     

Saturday, June 27, 2020

“Greek Widows Matter and the Witness of Stephen” - June 21, 2020



Text: Acts 6, 7:54-60

Good morning and Happy Father’s Day to all of you!  A special word of thanks and appreciation for all of the fathers with us today.  

We are continuing in the Book of Acts this morning.  Acts is filled with amazing stories of faith.  Stories of courage and power and of the miraculous work of the Spirit.  Last week, we read how the church cared for one another to an amazing degree.  They had such a close fellowship, they provided for one another’s needs, they were led by the power of the Spirit.  Acts tells us about church the way church should be.

Except that - it really doesn’t.  Acts tells it all, the good and the bad.  There is much to aspire to, for sure, but we also find a lot that we definitely don’t want to repeat.  In our scripture today, two readings that tell the story of Stephen, we get both.

Last week we read from chapter 2.  It told us how the believers sold their goods in order to care for each other and that there was no one needy among them.  But that apparently didn’t last, and that wasn’t true everywhere.  In time an issue arose.

By the time we get to chapter 6, there was a system apparently in place to care for widows, with a daily distribution of food, a kind of first-century Meals on Wheels. Now remember, there was no Social Security, no pension plans, no government assistance programs.  If you did not have family around to care for you, you could be in big trouble very quickly.  But as the synagogues had done, the early church set up a system to care for widows, who were the most vulnerable members of society.  But in time, it appeared that some of the widows were being neglected in this food program. 

The text speaks of the Hebrews and the Hellenists.  The Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking.  They were longtime residents of Jerusalem and Israel.  The Hellenists were Greek-speaking. 

It arose in time that the Greek widows were not being cared for in the daily distribution of food.  Now, bear in mind that at this point, the church was essentially a sect within Judaism.  The local Jewish population spoke Aramaic.  They had deep roots and family ties in the area.  Greek-speaking Jews had grown up scattered in various parts of the Roman Empire.  Acts 2 speaks of devout Jews from every nation coming to Jerusalem.  Some settled there.  These folks were generally more cosmopolitan than the Aramaic-speaking Jews and often had their own synagogues, like the Synagogue of Freedman, which is mentioned in our reading.  They did not have the roots and often did not have the family ties of the Aramaic-speaking population.

The divisions of language and culture that existed among the Jewish population in Jerusalem found their way into the church, and the complaint was that the Greek-speaking widows were not being cared for as the other widows were.

You know, I have read this text many times before.  I had always noticed the apparent discrimination here, but this time, given the context we are in today, I understood this a little differently, a little more deeply perhaps.

You had a situation in which people were tired of mistreatment.  People started saying, “Greek Widows Matter.”  It’s not hard to imagine others responding, well, All Widows Matter.  And the fact was, of course, all widows mattered.  Every life matters to God.  Every person is precious to Jesus.  But precisely because all widows matter, in that moment, something needed to be done to care for those who were being treated as if they did not matter.

You know, given what we read of the early Christians, given the inclusive nature of the church at Pentecost, I doubt that anybody said, “Let’s withhold help for the Hellenists.  Let’s load up the delivery boxes for the Hebrew widows and shortchange the Greek widows.”  I doubt that there was a plan hatched to just skip the homes of Greek widows when deliveries were made.

I can imagine it was more of a case in which the needs of the Hebrew widows were more widely known.  As long-time residents, they were generally more plugged into society.  The way to report needs may have been more difficult for Greek speakers to navigate.  And since they were more cosmopolitan, since they had lived in these exotic places, there may have been an assumption that their needs were not so great.

In other words, you do not have to assume there was personal animosity involved.  Knowing how we humans are, that was probbaly a part of it, of course, but a large part of it may have been more of a problem with the system.

To their great credit, the church recognized the problem.  I am sure they had conversations.  I am sure they got educated about it.  They may have read about it.  But it did not stop there.  Education and awareness and an understanding of the history of the situation is vital.  But they went on to the next step.  They did something.  They changed policy.  They created a new structure.  Simply talking about the problem would not necessarily change things.

The apostles had a huge job sharing the gospel, spreading the Good News of Jesus, leading people to faith in Christ and establishing new churches.  They realized that more leadership was needed.  So the decision is made to try something new. The office of deacon was created. 

Seven men are appointed to be in charge of caring for physical needs.  They are the first deacons.  While they are seven men, later in Acts we read about Phoebe, a woman who was a deacon.  The word “deacon” basically means waiter -- someone who waits on tables.  

Now, here is the thing that I had not quite noticed but which became clear to me as I looked at this passage from the perspective of 2020: it is not at all a stretch to say that the office of deacon was created largely as a response to systemic racism.  Think about that.  Responding to injustice by creating new things - living out our faith in creative ways that are appropriate for our context - is a part of the church’s DNA.

We read a list of the first seven deacons, who were given the task of caring for widows and persons in need.  But as we know, you can’t just draw a sharp line between preaching and teaching on the one hand and service on the other.  The twelve apostles were not exempt from service, and the deacons did not stick exclusively to serving those with physical needs.  And for that matter, ministry is not just for the pastors and deacons to take care of.  We all have a responsibility to live out our faith through both worship and service.

As it turns out, Stephen, one of these seven deacons, was a powerful preacher who did signs and wonders among the people.  Stephen preached and taught about Jesus, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews at the Synagogue of the Freedmen did not appreciate this.  They argued with Stephen but tended to lose the debates, and eventually they hatched a plot to deal with him.  They trumped up charges against him.

Our reading this morning starts at the beginning of chapter 6 and concludes at the end of chapter 7.  Now, we spared you having to hear the first fifty verses of chapter 7.  It is the longest sermon recorded in the Book of Acts and maybe in the Bible. 

Stephen begins with Abraham and moves through the Old Testament, recounting the history of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people.  No one could disagree with what he said until he got to the part about killing the prophets and opposing the Holy Spirit.  “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  Come on, which one?”  Stephen is in their face.

At this point, Stephen seems to know where all of this I sheading, and he does not hold back.  In the end, the crowd
covered their ears and shouted as they went after him.

Covered their ears and shouted?  What is that about?  Well, I’d like you to do something for me.  Put your hands over your ears.  Guess what?  You can still hear me.  To really shut me out, you need to cover your ears and shout at the same time.  (Since I don’t have to hear you, you can try that if you want.)  As he spoke of seeing Jesus at the right hand of God, the crowd considered his words blasphemy.  They that covered their ears and shouted as they rushed at him.  They drug him out of the city and stoned him to death.

Aren’t you glad that over the last 2000 years, we humans have learned to deal with our differences constructively, that we don’t have to resort to violence or the threat of violence toward those with whom we disagree?

Clearly, things haven’t changed much.  We may not personally throw stones, but we can definitely throw words.  We can demonize those who are different and make them less than a person.  Like those who covered their ears and shouted at Stephen, we don’t always want to listen.  We use labels and stereotypes and can just write off the other person.  There is physical stoning, and then there is verbal stoning and psychological stoning and maybe even spiritual stoning.

The culture of labeling and blaming and opposing and turning so easily to violence, in our hearts if not in our actions, can affect all of us.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to love instead of hate because hate destroys.  We love instead of hate through the power God gives us.  We love instead of hate as we follow the example of Jesus, and the example of Stephen.  We refuse to pick up stones not only because of what it can do to others, but because of what is can do to us. 

Being faithful can mean bringing hope and comfort to others.  It means taking care of needs, as these early Christians did, however imperfectly.  It means making changes and responding in ways that work toward both mercy and justice for all.  It can also mean taking stands that aren’t so popular.  When in the course of offering a prophetic word, when in the course of speaking the truth, and especially speaking truth to power, we may encounter opposition.  Doing the right thing can come with a cost. 

Well, nobody said being a deacon would be easy.  On the other hand, our deacons today can look to Stephen and realize that maybe they don’t have it so hard.

One of the very first deacons got himself killed for following Jesus.  As he is being stoned, Stephen prays for those who are killing him.  “Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them,” he says.  It reminds us of Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

There is one little detail we find at the end of this story.  Those who were stoning him “set their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  Stephen prays for his murderers, and those prayers are answered.  Saul, of course, becomes the great missionary Paul.  Augustine said, “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”  And if that is true, then in large measure, we owe the church itself to the prayer of Stephen.  Amen.


“The Church Together” - June 14, 2020

Text: Acts 2:37-47

Can you recall a stranger, more unexpected, more unsettled, more crisis-filled time in our society?  Just a few months ago, we could not imagine being in this place.

We could not imagine schools and business and churches closing to try and slow a global pandemic.

We could not imagine so many people out of work and struggling and a world-wide recession not seen since the 1870’s, I just read this week.

We could not imagine people rising up all over the country to protest racial injustice.  And not just in large cities, not just in Ames, but in places like Boone.

Just a month ago, no one would have dreamed of NASCAR banning the confederate flag.  I mean, who saw that coming?

Earlier this year, we could not have dreamed that we would be trying to coordinate our face masks as a fashion accessory.

We could not have imagined our choir getting into the business of making music videos.

And we could not have imagined closing the doors to the church and somehow at the same time improving our worship attendance.

This is an uncertain time and this is absolutely uncharted territory for the church.  But it is far from the first such time.

We have spent a few weeks in Acts, leading up to the story of Pentecost in the first part of Acts chapter 2.  Acts is focused on the church – a brand new phenomenon, birthed at Pentecost.  Acts tells the story of how the church navigated uncertain waters, experienced setbacks, improvised and responded to a variety of changing cultural realities, and through it all grew in faith and grace and love as an expression of the continuing work of Jesus, and spread the gospel through the Mediterranean world.

I had planned a look at Acts as a follow-up to the Easter season, and as it turns out it is perfect for where we now find ourselves.  What better time to look at how the church has faced crisis and change?  We will be following readings from Acts in the coming weeks, seeking wisdom and guidance and insight from these stories of the early church.

Our scripture for this morning, coming immediately after Pentecost, is an account of the church at its very beginning, established as a response to Pentecost.  At this point, they did not have buildings or clergy or tax-exempt status.  They did not have copy machines or hymnals or a sound system.  They did not have a Sunday School.  They were making it up as they went along – they did not have a guide book or church manual.  At this point, there was no New Testament to guide them.  They didn’t even have a church basketball team.  But they were the church, they were full of life, they grew, and the account of their life together can be instructive for us today.

As we look at this early Christian community, what were the distinguishing characteristics?

First, it is a learning community.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.”  They were open to new truth.  They understood that they didn’t have all the answers.  And that went for the apostles as well as anybody.

In the Book of Acts, we will find the biggest names of the early church, Peter and Paul, coming to entirely new understandings and making radical changes.  They were all learning.

It was a caring community.  Perhaps more than anything else, the quality of caring shines forth as we read about this church.  I am impressed that these early believers were able to set aside their own needs and wants and perhaps natural proclivities in order to truly sacrifice for the sake of the other.  They did not simply live for themselves.

Writing around the year 125, Aristides wrote of a Christian community:
They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another.  They do not despise the widow, and do not grieve the orphan.  Those who have distribute liberally to those who have not.  They bring the stranger under their roof, and rejoice over that stranger as if it were their own brother or sister... if there is among them one that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.

That is caring, sacrificial love.

And then, this was a praying community.  Which would come naturally: when you really care about each other, you pray for each other.  This life of prayer arose from their relationship with God.  Prayer centered the community on God and undergirded all the church did. 

It was a worshiping community.  Worship was a daily part of life.  God was real to them.  Worship was not simply a duty to take care of so they could get on with the rest of their week, but something that grounded their lives.  There was a sense of expectation, of awe, of reverence, of power.

This was also a joyful community.  It is not that they were without problems, because they were.  It is not that these people did not know heartache – it is clear that they did.  There was persecution.  Many lived in poverty.  The fact that they pooled their resources to meet needs and the fact that so many seemed to have such needs is a reflection of the difficult situations many found themselves in.  But through all of this, a sense of joy just leaps out as we read the passage.  And again, sharing meals seems to be very central to the life of the community

We read that this community enjoyed the goodwill of the people.  A community such as this would no doubt stand out in the wider society.  When people are cared for, folks notice.  When needs are attended to, word gets around.  Life was hard, really hard.  Life expectancy was short.  There was a lot of hurt and a lot of misery.  A community that expressed such love and concern and had such a deep fellowship would attract the notice of others.

This passage concludes by saying, “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  Growth, you may notice, is not at the top of the list.  Attendance and baptism statistics were not the most important thing.  The growth is attributed to God, not to the congregation, and it seems to be more of a by-product.  This church was devoted to teaching, to fellowship, to worship, to prayer; they shared their gifts, shared their resources, shared meals, provided for everyone.  Of course they grew. 


If you had to describe the church that is profiled in this passage of scripture using only one word, what would it be?  I would choose the word Together.  This church learned together, prayed together, worshiped together, ate together, indeed they lived together.  What was powerfully attractive about this church was the quality of its life together.

This was a church that looked out for everyone, a church in which everyone mattered and everyone belonged.

Now the argument is made that this is a very idealized view of the church.  You could argue this community was a gift of the Holy Spirit every bit as amazing as the Day of Pentecost – and indeed this glimpse of the church can be seen as a continuation of Pentecost.  This model of holding everything in common in order to meet needs did not become the norm in the early church.  But that does not mean we should not strive for the kind of caring and nurture and compassion and shared life exemplified by this community.

In this uncertain time, we could do a lot worse than to seek to build the kind of community and shared concern modeled by these early believers.  Like them, we are called to build a church, led by God’s Spirit, that looks after everyone, where everyone matters and everyone belongs.  A church that offers true and deep community in Jesus Christ.

I was reading Fortune magazine yesterday.  Now, I am not an avid read of Fortune.  I had some frequent flyer miles that were going to run out and I did that deal where you can use airline miles for free magazine subscriptions.  Unfortunately, the magazine I subscribed to apparently went under so they sent me Fortune instead.  Whatever.

So I was eating lunch and looked for something to read and there it was.  I was reading an article on how the pandemic will change business.  It was talking about how consumers feel a loss of control, how many people were in dire straits, and how all of this would have a long-term impact.  Ulrike Malmandier, an economist at Cal-Berkeley, said, “We will be different.  We’ll make different product choices, consumption choices, human capital choices.  This is beyond economics; it’s neuroscience.  A crisis experience is deeply emotional, and stronger emotions get anchored more strongly in our memories.  Our hard wiring changes.”

The article was about business, but this time we are in will surely affect churches.  Not just in the short run - which it is clearly doing - but in the long run.  What will the effect be?  To be honest, I don’t know.  I don’t think any of us do.  As I said earlier, we are truly in uncharted territory.

But we can take a cue from these early Christians, whose lives had been changed and who found themselves in a new situation.  They forged a powerful community of faith, led by the Spirit.  It was a learning and caring and praying and worshiping community, a community of joy.  A community that drew in everyone.  Our expression of church may be very different today, and we surely face uncertainty going forward.  But when we are led by the Spirit, these qualities will still be at the heart of it all.  Amen.


Friday, June 5, 2020

"Dove, Breath, Fire" - Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020

Text: Acts 2:1-21


Here we are on another special day on the church calendar, figuring out how to do things virtually.  We had do-it-yourself palms and a kind of shelter-in-place palm procession on Palm Sunday.  We celebrated on Easter as best we could, and then Ziggy the dog punctuated the celebration by running in circles to the Hallelujah Chorus.  Here we are on Pentecost Sunday, and while we have not made that big a deal of it in past years, I see a lot of folks wearing red today.  Good for you!

The question may be, what is Pentecost, anyway, and why red, and what is the big deal?

For the Jews, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival, one of three big pilgrimage festivals throughout the year.  There was Passover.  There was Sukkoth in the fall – known as the Feast of Tabernacles, a remembrance of God’s protection while Israel was in the wilderness.  And there was Shavuot, a festival connected with the barley harvest.  Shavuot commemorates Israel receiving the 10 commandments.  Greek speaking Jews called it Pentecost, which means 50th, as it comes 50 days after Passover.

Like the other pilgrimage festivals, this was an occasion when Jews dispersed throughout the world would come to Jerusalem.  In our reading, we heard many of the nations represented in Jerusalem who were there for the festival.

Do you remember what it was like to go on a big trip?  Back in the time BC?  The planning, the anticipation, the experience of being there?  I remember in my first year here in Ames traveling with my friend Bob Grizzard to Indianapolis for the NCAA Final Four.  There were tens of thousands of people there, people from everywhere.  For a basketball fan, it was a religious pilgrimage.

I remember so many American Baptist biennial meetings – traveling to Portland or Providence or Pasadena along with hordes of American Baptists from all around.

Whether it is for a meeting or convention or whether it is a trip to Disney World or maybe a reunion of some sort, we all know what it is like to travel to an event and arriving to crowds of people.  Travelers from many places, from many cultures, had come to Jerusalem to be there for Pentecost.  It was a motley collection of folks from all over the Mediterranean world.

Among those who were there were Jesus’ followers, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit.  And we read what happened: a mighty wind blew.  Tongues of fire descended.  The apostles began to speak to the crowd, and what was amazing was that everyone understood.  The Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak so that everyone could hear and understand in his or her own language.

The crowd was astonished.  “Aren’t these people speaking just a bunch of Galileans?” they asked.  There were hecklers who saw all that was happening and said, “Those Galileans have been hitting the bottle.  These people are drunk.”

Peter uses this as an opportunity to address the crowd, saying that “these people are not drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning, for heaven’s sake!”  The implication seemed to be that if it were later in the day, that might be a plausible argument. 

Peter said that what was happening was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel - that God would pour out the Spirit on all flesh, on all people, men and women, young and old.  The apostles were given the boldness and power to speak, and this was the fulfillment of God’s promise, said Peter.  And the reason for God acting in such a dramatic way through the Holy Spirit was so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

There are several symbols commonly attached to the Holy Spirit.  Steve Garnaas-Holmes’ hymn that we just sang, Spirit of God, speaks of the Spirit as Dove, Wind, and Flame.  At Jesus’ baptism, a dove descends, a symbol of the Spirit and a sign of peace.  The Spirit brings us peace.

Then there is wind, or breath.  Wind, breath, and spirit are all the same word in Hebrew – ruach.  The breath of God hovered over the waters of creation.  God breathes life into all of humanity.  The wind of God blows where it wills.  The Spirit brings life.

And then another symbol is flame.  Tongues of fire descended, and this is where the red for Pentecost comes from.  Fire is a symbol of power.  And enthusiasm.  And boldness.  We talk about being fired up.

Maybe you can see the new banners on the wall behind me at the back of the chancel.  We have similar banners we have used, purple for Lent and green for ordinary time of the church year.  This is the first occasion to use the red banners.  You may look at the banner and see a dove, but if you look closer you can see fire and wind as well.

Those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost were a mix of people from all over the world.  They had a shared religion but they lived in different places, they spoke different languages, they had different cultural practices and understandings.  But they could all understand the apostles, and that diverse community was brought together by the power of the Spirit.

This has been a grim week.  I look at our world, and it is just crying out for an infusion of God’s Spirit.

This past week, our country recorded the 100,000th death from the coronavirus.  100,000 deaths that have touched untold numbers of people, affecting family members including some gathered here today.  The economic and social and mental health fallout from the crisis we are experiencing is enormous and will be with us for a long time.  And it is painful to see a public health crisis becoming divisive.

And then we were all horrified to see the video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.  For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground, finally lifeless.  It was another awful reminder of the pervasive racism that still - still – plagues our country, like a virus that will not go away.

George Floyd’s last words were no doubt the same as some who have died of COVID-19: “I can’t breathe.”  And here we are this morning, thinking about breath.  Ruach.  God’s Spirit that gives life to us all.

There are those who can’t breathe because the foot of oppression is on their necks and there are those who can’t breathe without a ventilator.  Many of us are privileged to be able to breathe without fear and without a ventilator.  With that privilege comes responsibility.  The Spirit gives us strength and boldness and a heart of love to work for justice and peace and to care for neighbors who have trouble breathing.

It will take an outpouring of the Spirit to heal the racism that affects and infects all of us.  None of us are immune.  But just as at Pentecost, by the power of the Spirit, folks from diverse cultures and backgrounds and perspectives and ethnicities and races can live and breathe freely, together.

We need the Spirit’s peace.  But don’t misunderstand; peace is not simply the absence of conflict.  The prophet Jeremiah speaks of those “Who have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, Peace’ when there is no peace.”  Peace means justice and good will and respect and compassion and care for all people.  The pandemic we are in has exposed the depths of racial disparities in our nation.  People of color have lost their jobs disproportionately, and died from the virus disproportionately.

I was in a Zoom call with about 10 or 12 other ABC pastors last week.  One was the pastor of our newest church – Swahili Baptist Church in Des Moines.  The pastor had recovered from the virus.  A young man in his church, 34 years old, had died from it.  Also in the meeting was Pastor Benjamin from Carson Chin Baptist Church in Columbus Junction.  20 something members of his church, a church of people who had come here as refugees from Burma, had contracted the virus.  It was no coincidence that our immigrant churches had suffered more than others.

Peace involves praying for and working toward God’s shalom, God’s peace, for all of our brothers and sisters.         

This is a hard time.  There is so much emptiness around us.  Schools are empty.  Church buildings are empty, or nearly so.  Many businesses are empty, some closed permanently.  Bank accounts are empty.  Folks are stuck at home feeling isolated, disconnected, empty.  There are empty stomachs, empty hearts, and plenty of empty promises.  The reservoir of goodwill and cooperation, if not empty, is surely running low.  And in the midst of this emptiness we read:   

Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
We need the Spirit to act in a mighty way and to fill the empty places in our lives and in our world. 

Alan Jones was for many years the dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  He said, “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit…Only fools for Christ do.”  He suggests that the Spirit is most present at three open spaces in our lives: “in the unpredictable, in the place of risk, and in those areas over which we have no control.”

The unpredictable.
The place of risk.
Those areas over which we have no control.
I think we have a Bingo.

God’s Spirit can bring life and hope and power and grace in the least expected times and places, in those situations that may appear to us hopeless.  Those are exactly the kind of places where God loves to work.  The Spirit can move in such a time as we are in right now to bring transformation.

Like those gathered at Pentecost, we are a somewhat motley collection, gathered from different places.  We come with a variety of hopes and fears and joys and pains.  But we are united in our shared need and in God’s abundant and amazing grace.

For the emptiness we experience in our lives and for the vast emptiness we see and experience in our world, we pray: Come Spirit, come.  Amen.

“Structure and Spirit” - May 17, 2020

Text: Acts 1:15-26

Video

Don’t you just love a good church business meeting?  OK, maybe not.  Business meetings are typically pretty cut and dried.  You make decisions that need to be made and hope that it doesn’t take too long.  If it is done well, there can be moments of gratitude and inspiration and excitement about the future – our Annual Meeting can often feel like that.  And it’s not the case in this church, thankfully, but I have to say that some of the worst moments I have experienced in churches and in denominational life have been in business meetings.  There are some church meetings that ESPN could probably televise while they wait for sports to come back – that’s how explosive it can sometimes be.

When we ask people what they like about church, they will talk about worship, about the great music, they will talk about fellowship and a sense of family, about people who care for them, about a place for their children to learn and grow and belong.  They might talk about food – about pot luck meals and fellowship dinners.  But I have never heard anybody say that what they really love is the business meetings.

As we read last Sunday, the Book of Acts open with Jesus telling his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that then they will be witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world.  And then he ascends to heaven. 

So the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Spirit.  What happens between the Ascension and Pentecost?  What do the disciples do as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  They have a business meeting.  Seriously.  Why do we find a business meeting in the middle of such dramatic and earth-shaking events?

The simple answer is that twelve was an important number.  Jesus had called twelve disciples, and this matched the twelve tribes of Israel.  Eleven just wouldn’t cut it.  In our scripture, we get a very graphic autopsy report on Judas, who had betrayed Jesus.  He was no longer among them and they needed another apostle.  There was tradition and there was symbolism; twelve was important. 

But that still begs the question of “why now?” Why have a business meeting when the Holy Spirit is scheduled to show up any minute?  It seems like really odd timing.

It may seem like a crazy time to have a business meeting, but maybe it was exactly the right time.  The church always needs both structure and spirit.  The apostles moved to find a replacement for Judas so that when the Spirit came, they would be ready.

There are a lot of people who complain about the “institutional church.”  I have a book on my shelf titled They Love Jesus But Not the Church, which is written about millennials but describes a lot of people.  There are people out there who have perhaps been hurt by those who seem more committed to the institution of the church than they are to loving God and loving their neighbor – more concerned about the structure of it all than the ministry.

Structure without Spirit can leave you cold.  But on the other hand, Spirit with no structure can be chaotic.  Every movement of the Spirit requires some kind of structure.  If the Spirit leads you to start a Bible study or feed the hungry or have a deeper prayer life, there has to be some kind of organization for it to really work.

In high school, I played in the jazz band.  What was great was when we improvised.  There was a basic tune we played, a basic melody, and then we would take turns improvising.  But we had to have both order and creativity for it to work.  There had to be structure beneath all the improvisation.  We played in a particular key and counted out a particular beat.  If it were all improvisation – if there were no structure at all – if everybody just played whatever they wanted, whenever they felt like it - it wouldn’t work. But if it were all structured, with no improvisation, no opportunities for originality, no creativity, no freedom, then it would have been lifeless.  It wouldn’t have been jazz.

I think it’s that way with most of life.  We all need a starting place – we need structure.  The structure is to help us and guide us – it’s not there to weigh us down.  If the goal is to fly, then structure and tradition can be our wings.

The apostles would go on to do all kinds of things that had not been done.  God would lead them in new directions.  God would give them power and courage and strength to face all kinds of adversity.  This was all the work of the Spirit.  But they were able to do what they did only as they were tied to the community and as they worked together.  That was the structure.

This morning we are especially thinking about the ways that we learn and grow as followers of Jesus.  We are honoring all of those who are leaders in Christian Education.  Church School and Lenten Studies and gatherings for college students and youth activities and camping and conference opportunities are some of the structures – some of the ways through which the Spirit works.

The Spirit leads us to grow in faith, but the Spirit works through teachers and leaders and counselors and our Christian Education Committee and yes, even business meetings.  It takes both structure and spirit.   

Several years ago, as part of my sabbatical, I had the chance to visit some emergent churches.  That was the name given at the time to new kinds of churches.  They were made up mostly of people in their 20’s, and they rejected the megachurch model of doing church.  While definitely a new and different thing, they were also open to traditional and ancient liturgy, and many had a strong focus on the arts.  In a sense what they did was very new and at the same time very old.  The whole movement was hard to describe, partly because there is so much difference from church to church, but I decided to visit some of these emergent churches.

There was one church in particular that was very interesting.  They had started out several years before as a church of 20-somethings, mostly single or at least without kids.  They were doing something new and exciting – it was a movement of the spirit.  By the time I attended this church, they had been around a few years and were now in a new location – they had grown a bit, and they met in a theater in a hip urban neighborhood.  Dogs were welcome – a couple of worshipers arrived with their dogs, which I really liked.

But here was the thing: they had been very focused on spirit as they started out, on this new thing that God was doing, but in time they realized they needed structure.  They were getting married and having kids now.  They had to think about a nursery, and do we have children’s church or just have the kids in worship with everybody else, and what kind of programs and activities do we have for our children?  And given our growing number of kids, is this theater really the best place to meet?  There has to be a structure for the Spirit to be able to work. 

There is so much that goes into our being the church that seems mundane, that may not seem all that spiritual.  Paying the bills.  Picking up beer cans in the parking lot.  Changing diapers.  Trimming hedges.  Making coffee.  Counting the offering.  Tuning the piano.  And recently, even more stuff: learning Zoom.  Determining what music we can legally stream.  Making sure we have computer equipment that is up to the task.

All of this is necessary, because it takes both structure and spirit for us to be the church.  Without spirit, our structure can be meaningless.  But without structure, the spirit has no place to work.

Maybe it is exactly right that in between two big, dramatic, spiritual events, the Ascension and Pentecost, we find a business meeting.

The Church needs leadership.  Another apostle was needed to replace Judas.  It was decided that the new apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, needed to be someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning.  Two were put forward as being qualified and worthy: Justus and Matthias.

Then we come to a very interesting part: they cast lots to determine who would serve.  Actually, this seems to be a fairly common approach in the scriptures, and this was not seen as mere chance; this was seen as God’s choice.

Some have continued this practice.  In some Amish traditions, several qualified men will each take a Bible from a table; one of the Bibles is marked to indicate that the one who chose that Bible is to be the pastor.

It’s not just the Amish.  An Episcopal priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared that her congregation chooses its vestry – its governing board - in a similar way.  A group of people is nominated, and at the annual meeting, all hear the responsibilities explained and agree to serve if selected.  The names are placed in the offering plate, the church prays, and then names are drawn to fill vacancies on the board.   The church has been doing this for a number of years and has found that more people than before are willing to serve.  It has helped to encourage the mindset that all church members have gifts to share.  The decision to go to this form of “election” was based on this scripture from Acts.

Both Justus and Matthias had been faithful in following Jesus and were willing to step in and serve.  In the Bible, we don’t hear of either of them again.  But they are an example for all of us: willing to serve and open to the Spirit.  Amen.

“Learning to Shift” - May 10, 2020


Text: Acts 1:1-14

Years ago, we bought a new used car, and we needed to unload our old vehicle: a 1988 Plymouth Colt.  About this time, a young friend of ours was looking for a car.  We told Philip about it and he was interested, mainly because we would give him a good deal and he didn’t have a lot of cash.  So we rode with Philip while he took it for a test ride.

The problem was, the Colt was a 5-speed manual and Philip had never driven a car with a clutch before.  So he wasn’t just taking a test drive, he was learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission.  It was quite an event.  He killed the engine several times.  He also peeled out when he gave it a bunch of gas and popped the clutch.  There were a lot of jerky starts and rough shifts, but it apparently went well enough because Philip bought the car.

Learning to shift is not easy.  And now, I’m not just talking about vehicles.

Our reading today begins, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus said and did from the beginning until he was taken up into heaven.”  Right away, this raises two questions: what is the first book and who in the world is Theophilus?

The first book is the gospel of Luke.  Luke and Acts are a two volume set.  Like Luke, Acts is addressed to Theophilus.  This may have been a prominent Greek-speaking believer, perhaps a patron of Luke.  But Theophilus literally means “One who loves God,” and this may have been a designation that the book is written for all who love God, for all believers.  Either way, in the end it is written for all of us.

The setting is Jerusalem.  It is forty days after the resurrection.  Jesus has appeared to the disciples on several occasions and he is with them again.  Before his death, they had believed that Jesus was going to initiate his kingdom – which they thought meant overthrowing Rome.  You would think that after the resurrection they would finally figure it out, but here they are, asking yet again, “Is now the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

Jesus deflects by telling his followers that they don’t need to be concerned over that which is known only to God, and then he says to them, “You will receive power and you will be my witnesses.”  And as he says this, Jesus ascends on a cloud into heaven.

Throughout scripture, clouds are associated with God.  In the book of Daniel we read about the Son of Man coming on the clouds.  In Exodus, after the Israelites escape Egypt, God is present with them in the cloud.  For Jesus, this is kind of the ultimate mic drop, as God takes him away in a cloud.

The cosmology of the Ascension comes from an earlier time – we no longer believe in a flat earth with hell below and heaven the other side of that cloud up there.  But we can nevertheless grasp the truth of it.  Jesus’ ministry on this earth was completed.  He had come from God and was now returning to God, and we, his disciples, are left to continue his ministry as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

Now you may have noticed that the 12 who had previously been called disciples are now called apostles.  Disciples are students, learners, apprentices.  Apostles are those who are sent – ambassadors, messengers, witnesses.  It is a change, a shift, and a big one. 

This weekend we have had virtual commencement ceremonies at Iowa State.  It is a huge change from being a student to being a graduate.  It’s the difference between preparation and action.  This is what Jesus had been preparing the disciples for.  To go.  To serve.  To share. 

Jesus tells the disciples-now-apostles that they are to be witnesses, and then he is gone.  And they are left looking up at the sky, as of course anybody would.  But then two guys in white robes show up.  By now, we know that this means angels, right?  They said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

There is a shift from heaven to earth.  We don’t just follow Jesus by looking towards heaven; we follow Jesus in day-to-day living.  And we can find God speaking to us in our day-to-day lives.

Anne LaMott was an alcoholic and in really bad shape when she started wandering in on Sunday mornings to St. Andrews Presbyterian, a kind of funky little church right by the farmer’s market she went to on Sunday mornings in San Francisco.  Slowly she started getting her life on track, and the people there patiently cared for her.

One Sunday at the end of the service, she got up the courage to tell the congregation she was pregnant.  The people cheered.  She was not married and did not expect this reaction.  Even people raised in Bible-thumping homes in the Deep South clapped and clapped. 

The church more or less adopted her.  They brought over casseroles that she could freeze and use later.  And they started to slip her money.  A bent-over woman on Social Security would sidle up to her and slip a 10 or 20 in her pocket.  And Mary Williams always sat in the back and brought her baggies filled with dimes.  Every week.

Sam was brought to the church when he was 5 days old.  People oohed and aahed and everybody called him “our baby.”  People in that little church kept Anne LaMott going.  They cared, prayed, and reached out to her and saw her through some hard days.

Writing several years later, LaMott said that Mary Williams still brought her baggies filled with dimes.  By then she was an accomplished writer and doing much better financially.  She said she gave the bags of dimes to homeless people.  But she wrote, “Why do I make Sam go to church?  I make him go because everybody brings me dimes.”  When Anne looked around her, she saw the face of God.

It is a shift, from thinking of God up there in heaven to seeing God at work all around us.

There is another shift.  Jesus’ last words to his disciples were, “You shall be my witnesses to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The disciples had asked if Jesus was now going to restore the kingdom.  They were thinking about Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria – the original geography of Israel.  And out of those regions, they weren’t so keen on the Samaritans.  But Jesus has an entirely different kind of kingdom in mind.  It’s not just for Israel; he adds “the ends of the earth.”

It is a big shift – from us and them to simply, us.  Jesus calls us to be concerned not only for ourselves and people like us, but for everyone.  For the whole world.  This is an expansive and inclusive vision. 

The rest of the book of Acts can be seen as living out these shifts in focus and understanding as Jesus’ followers take the gospel far beyond Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria.

Now, when we read the Bible, the question is always, what does this mean for us?  Well, I wonder.  Are there any kinds of changes we have had to make in recent days?  Are there any shifts we have had to make – in our thinking, in our actions, in our practices?

Here we are, in our homes, scattered not just around Ames but around the country.  There is anxiety around our health and that of loved ones.  There is anxiety around employment and finances.  There is anxiety around the future.  We have had to change the way we work, the way we go to school, the way we shop, the way we seek medical care.  We have had to change our social lives, the way we interact with friends, the way we visit family.  We have had to change the way we worship.  Is there anything that hasn’t shifted?   

What I notice in this text is that first, it is OK to take a breath.  The disciples were to wait.  Wait for the Holy Spirit.  They returned to Jerusalem and they waited and prayed.  We don’t have to know everything right now and we don’t have to have it all figured out right now.  In a time of uncertainty, God will show us the next step to take.

Another thing I noticed is that while Jesus had left the building, God was still there.  And Christ was still present, though not in the flesh.

On Easter, we sang Brian Wren’s great hymn, “Christ Is Alive.”  We will sing it again in a few minutes.  It is not only a great resurrection hymn; it is a great Ascension hymn.  The second verse says: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”  Through times of tumult and change and learning to shift, Christ is there.

Now one more thing.  You might be saying, “Dave – did you forget that today is Mother’s Day?  What kind of Mother’s Day sermon is this?”

No, I did not forget.  We usually don’t make Mother’s Day the central focus of worship, for a lot of reasons, and our scripture for today was chosen completely without regard for Mother’s Day.  But did you notice that there is a mother mentioned in the text?  Many of those present are listed by name, including Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Of all the shifts in focus and direction and understanding that Jesus’ followers had to make, Mary had made the most.  She was there from the beginning, when an angel told her that she would bear the messiah, and she said “Let it be.”  She gave birth to Jesus, took him to Egypt to escape Herod, and was frantic with worry when at age 12 he was lost and then found in the temple.  She saw him come of age and embark on his ministry.  And she was there at the cross.  She experienced the amazing joy of his resurrection and now she was there at the ascension.  But she didn’t stop there; here she was praying with the others, awaiting God’s leading, moving on to the next step.

Many mothers could tell similar tales, not of resurrection and ascension, but of the many shifts that must be made in life, so many relating to children.

Life is full of changes, full of transitions.  Shifts in the way we live our lives, shifts in the way we relate to God and others.  We are in one of those times of transition right now.  Through it all, Christ is with us.  And Jesus’ mother, Mary, shows us the way.  Amen.