Tag: journey

Why Are You Standing There?

Acts 1:6-14 Angels-Talking-To-Disciples-After-The-Ascension-Of-Jesus
John 17:1-11

 

Ever feel like telling the angels in Acts or the Gospels, DUH! Maybe giving them a dirty look to boot? I know I do.

The disciples are speaking with the Risen Jesus, and then before their very eyes Jesus rises up and goes into the clouds. Quite naturally, the disciples stand there gaping up at the sky.

I’ve never seen anyone levitate. Let alone rise up into heaven. I think standing there slack jawed is about the nicest way I’ll look if I ever seen such. I might just have wet pants too.

But these two angels appear and ask, “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”

DUH!

This isn’t the first time the angels have been jerks, in my opinion. Remember when Mary is sobbing over Jesus’ empty tomb in John? Once again, two angels appear in white. And once again, they ask a question. “Woman, why are you weeping?”

DUH!

Mary, bless her heart, actually answers: “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

In Luke’s version… just like in John… two angels appear to Mary at the tomb. And they, too, ask her a question. Only they ask her: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

… say it with me…

Duh.

Jesus is dead. Jesus’ dead body was left here. Mary’s seeking a dead guy.

We don’t have to read these stories and think the disciples and Mary and the women are wrong or unenlightened. We don’t have to think the angels are perfect. These stories are meant to be relatable.

And relatable means, to me, hearing these angels being kinda jerkish and asking questions that sound condescending, insulting, when taken just as they are.

But you know, sometimes jerkish questions do us good.

It is no secret I was scared and AM scared to be a pastor. In my mind, there is a lot less on the line to be a writer and a scholar of religion than to actually be preaching and sharing lives with people. I was speaking to a spiritual counselor about this once. I told her how I was scared of saying something wrong to a parishioner or in a sermon and harming someone’s faith. The counselor asked me, “Are you more powerful than God?”

Duh. Of course not.

She continued, “Then why do you think you’re the most powerful voice in someone’s life? You’re not. You’re going to say things wrong. But you’re not God. It’s vain to think you’re going to make or break ANYONE’S faith. Faith is a journey between a person and God. A pastor just gets to walk alongside that journey for awhile. But the journey is way, way outside the pastor’s control.”

Sometimes, jerkish questions help us a whole lot.

At the tomb in Luke, the angels’ question of ‘why do you look for the living among the dead’ leads them on to remind the women that Jesus is Risen. He isn’t dead. He’s not going to be in a graveyard. The women realize this from the question, and they go back to the apostles with the news. They’re the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. A jerkish question from the angels wakes them up, shows them new possibilities, and moves them to action.

Just like a pointed question did the same for me.

In John, at the tomb, both the angels AND Jesus get to ask Mary why she is weeping and whom she is seeking. Twice, she states she is seeking the body of Jesus and doesn’t know where to find Jesus. The questions let us see and understand, and eventually let Mary see and understand, that the dead body of Jesus isn’t what we really are seeking. And if we’re seeking Jesus only in the past, dead, buried… we’re not going to find him.

Our Lord is risen, ascended, and returning. Our Lord is not buried and gone. But are we still only seeking him among the dead and not among those living today?

That brings us to those angels standing near the disciples who are catching flies looking up to heaven some time after Jesus’ resurrection. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?”

Duh.

But their jerkish question has a point. Standing there and staring into heaven isn’t what Jesus commissioned us to do. They had just asked, ‘Is it now that Israel is going to be restored?’ And Jesus tells them no. And reminds them again that God’s message and restoration isn’t just for that ancient country, but for all counties — all people — everywhere. And again, Jesus charges them to carry this message of love everywhere.

Yes, he told us to keep watch. Yes, he told us to stay awake. But never once did he tell us to wait around for his return doing nothing. Rather, he told us to do greater deeds than he. Told us to carry his message everywhere around the world. Told us to do his commandments, to do God’s commandments, and to actively love one another.

So… the question gives the disciples and apostles direction. They go back to Jerusalem. They return to sharing their lives together in prayer, and study, and in good works, and in living the Christian Way.

As we heard today, as Jesus prayed over the last supper – he said to God, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” and so it is. Jesus is Risen. But Jesus is present through us to one another. Jesus is with God Our Parent, but has sent our Holy Advocate among us to remind us how to live Jesus’ teachings.

What does this look like in action today?

The first example I can think of is our offering today.

A second I think it speaks wisdom into our church woes. It’s no secret at all that churches are closing left and right. Attendance is way down from the height of the 1940s and 1950s. Most congregations operate in the red with their budgets and most congregations are strapped for people under the age of 50.

Like Mary at the tomb, we look in these once-grand buildings but find them empty. And we weep.

Like everyone staring up into heaven, we keep watching and waiting thinking that a return: maybe when the teens are adults and married. Maybe when the adults retire. Maybe when the retirees get lonely.

Some churches are trying to shake up things. You’ve heard of the churches with contemporary services and live music. You’ve heard of churches who worship outside, or worship over coffee, or even in bars. Some get rid of pews and some get rid of hymnals.

But in the end, even these churches find it is hard to keep being relevant to people’s lives. Their numbers may swell for a year or two, but then… things go back to looking drear.

The truth of the matter is – people don’t want to go to services to worship God.

Worshiping God isn’t important in their lives.

And I don’t blame them. That was me for years and years. Standing there staring into heaven felt nice once and awhile… like maybe an Easter or a Christmas service… but doing that weekly didn’t really get the house clean, or pay the bills, or make my day better.

The truth is… church wasn’t relevant to my life and it isn’t for most people.

And I think that’s what the angels are pointing out in our scripture, and even today… reflecting on the past is good, but fixated on it is not. It’s time to move on. Time to trust God, time to do as God asks, and welcome the new reality God gifts us. Reflecting on the glory years of our churches is good. But pining, wishing, for those years to come back is not good.

We won’t find the living among the dead. We’re not going to fill up this church or any church by changing little things or big things in our services.

You see, services don’t make Christians, services aren’t designed to and aren’t aimed towards people considering Christianity. We say prayers that aren’t printed, and we sing hymns not known in pop culture, and we use terms and phrases no one who isn’t ‘in the know’ understands.

Standing there gazing into heaven doesn’t spread the message to all of the ends of the earth. It doesn’t make our faith relevant.

What does?

Mission work. Out reach. Living a Christian life. When the apostles return and live lives of hope, of sharing, of community – people want to know more. Want to join. When a church has a mission, a purpose – people want to join in, and make a difference. When a church has an out reach, a program to assist the community – people want to participate.

The food pantry.

Foundation dinners.

5th quarter, Hope homes, One Great Hour of Sharing, the PIN fund, Vacation Bible School, donating our hymnals, donating time and resources here and there – these are mission and out reach.

Praying for each other. Giving each other rides. Sharing our garden produce and our clothes, our homes and our lives with each other. Knowing how each other are doing. Calling, writing, facebooking, loving each other… this is living a Christian life. This is community.

Church? Worshiping God? These are the results of mission work, outreach, and the Christian life. Church is not an ends unto itself. It is the human response to God’s presence throughout our whole week – our whole lives.

This is where we recharge. Where we stand gazing into heaven and smile. Where we sink on our knees at the tomb in wonder. This is where we pause, reflect, and praise God.

But church is only relevant, only meaningful, if we have been in relationship with God and working for God long before we entered the church doors.

So… let me play the role of the angels for a moment and ask a jerkish question…

Why are you here today? Is church relevant to you? If not, what is missing?

Amen.

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Fast Food Diet

Numbers 11:4-29
Mark 9:38-50

Last week we spoke about cravings, and this week the theme continues. Now in the old testament, the Torah, some of the Israelites who left Egypt with Moses are strongly craving meat. They whine that in Egypt they had cucumbers and melons, leeks and onions, fish and garlic — and real meat. But out here, all they get is manna – the strange bread from heaven. Why did they ever leave Egypt?

Pretty soon more and more of the camp is complaining. So Moses goes and complains to God — why do you hate me so? Look at the people you make me care for, make me nurse along like I’m a mother breastfeeding children — these aren’t my kids! This burden is too heavy!”

So God says God will send so much meat that the people will literally have meat coming out of their noses and they will hate meat.

Moses points out there are over a half million men — plus their families — where is there enough meat to feed this many people meat for every meal for a month?

God answers — watch me. Gather elders and I will give them some of the spirit on them from you so you don’t lead alone. Moses does as God asks, and when the spirit settles on the elders, they begin to prophesize — proving their connection to the divine. Yet they kept their authority to speak and prophesize carefully only in the presence of Moses. Two other men, however, who also were leaders, didn’t go to the meeting. Yet they, too, began to know the word of God. In the camp — away from the authority of Moses — they began to prophesize.

Word got back to Moses real quick on the lips of a young man. Joshua tells Moses — “Moses, stop them!”

But Moses replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? I would that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Our reading ends here, today, to drive home the Christian message that Jesus gifted the Spirit to all people — just as Moses once wished.

But what of the promised meat? After today’s reading, the meat does come. Quail arrive in a windstorm. And they eat as much meat as they can handle. But while the meat was still in the teeth of those who gathered it, a plague struck and the people who had craved other food died.

In Numbers, the author says God did this. Science would say that eating meat that falls out of the sky from a hurricane is eating spoiled meat and listeria kills people. Scholars, however, say the entire story is a way of speaking of spirituality.

See, food in the Bible is often a sign, a reference, to spirituality. Jesus is the bread from heaven. Lamentations food for the soul is desired. In John, Jesus tells his disciples he has food they do not know of to eat – it is the food that is the will of God. We are told to labor for bread that doesn’t perish but abides into eternal life. We are reminded at each communion how the simple food of bread and pressed grapes are so, so much more than that which nourishes our bodies.

Food is a symbol. It represents life. Represents goodness. Represents spirituality. Represents God.

With that in mind, some scholars read this disturbing story in Numbers as a story about the people coming to terms with a new spirituality.

In Egypt, they had many religions. Lots of different kinds of food. Many different gods to pray to and to feed their souls. But out here, in the wilderness, they have only got YWHW – the strange God of Moses and of their great-forefathers. So while in Egypt they had specialty gods — out here they only have one universal god. And this is getting pretty bland.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special to pray to for womens’ problems? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special just for children? Rather than saying evils — like plagues, listeria, deaths — come from the same God who gives births, medicine, and health — it would be easier to say an evil god sends evil. The people, in this interpretation, crave more variety in their gods.

If they can’t get more variety, they at least want more substance. This bread alone diet is boring. Give us something harder! Give us more spirituality! Give us more truths! Give us something to sink our teeth into! Give us the meat!

Moses goes and tells God he’s had it — he’s been nursing these babies that aren’t even his. He is giving them the most basic spirituality, the most basic nourishment, the most basic faith — and they aren’t happy. They want more. They say they want meat. No more of this simple religion stuff. Give them the plethora of gods in Egypt or give them more substance than what they have now.

And so the quail are hard spiritual meat, hard truths, scary realities, crazy paradoxes, the deep nuances of religion, the hard to comprehend wisdom of God — the power, and breadth, and immensity of God. As soon as the people try to get their mouths on all of this, they die. It’s too much. God is more than we can understand or know. Just a portion of God’s power diluted through Moses still makes the elders go crazy and speak prophesies. That diluted power makes even other elders who weren’t even present when God transferred the Spirit prophesy. So in this story, when scholars read it as a story of spirituality, the people balk and cannot handle meaty religion.

They need the milk-bread religion. They need the simple stuff. The people who kept to just the basics and trusted that is all they needed survived. The ones who craved more died.

… In this interpretation — which was really favored in the middle ages — a good faith doesn’t have to know everything, a good faith just has to trust what they have is enough.

… I think I would have been among those people who died.

I can’t stand not knowing something. So this interpretation, although it helps explain God doesn’t willy-nilly kill people for doing as God permitted them to do… this interpretation still discourages asking questions and wanting to know more.

I didn’t come to the UCC to remain silent. One of the UCC slogans about don’t check your brain in at the door of the church really appeals to me. I want to use my brain in church! And I believe God wants me to use my brain too!

So, I don’t like either way of thinking about this troubling story – either God as the source of misery and joy, nor as God wanting us to be stupid followers.

Instead, I like to hear this story as a reminder that our faith grows. It’s okay to start with a faith that’s made of milk and bread. That’s the faith the Israelites started off with. It’s okay to begin our faith journeys thinking Jesus surely was a blond haired, blue eyed, beautiful man… because a lot of us are blond haired, blued eyed, and we see images painted of Jesus when he looks like that.

But as we move into more solid food, more mature spirituality, we realize that Jesus– who was born in the Middle East as a Jewish man — likely didn’t look like a proper modern German.

Because our faith began with picturing Jesus looking the same as us ethnically is nothing to be embarrassed about. We all start with milk and bread. We slowly move towards meat.

I think this is what Jesus’ harsh words are about in Mark. When we see others who we think are still on beginning faith, we shouldn’t belittle them. We shouldn’t hurt their faith with questions theologians can’t answer with gallons of spilled ink. No, their faith will be tested in time — tested with fire, hardships — and they will become salted, full of salt, full of flavor, as God sees fit.

So that same lesson applies to us… there’s no need to be ashamed we don’t have answers to some of the hard questions… for instance, what does Jesus mean about Resurrection? Life eternal? Do people have bodies? Why does parts of the Bible contradict itself? Why do we have stories like the one today that says God does hurtful things?

These meaty questions are hard to digest. Giving fast answers — I don’t know and I don’t want to think about it — or “because the Bible says so” — work for awhile, when we’re on simple diets of bread and milk. But eventually, these lose their salt. Life gives us bigger challenges, greater fires, than what we’ve faced before. So we go back to our faith, and spend more time, grow into it, and take a more nuanced understanding of God back with us to face the world.

Fast food diets — full of quick easy food, lots of fat, lots of sugar and salt — are tasty. But they don’t nourish us. Faith that is fast, easy to follow, full of sweet sayings and salty good wisdom — is tasty and great… but it doesn’t nourish us for long.

Eventually, we have to go looking for more nutritious food to sustain our walk with the Lord. Eventually, we have to face harder questions. There’s no rhyme or reason, no particular age — whether child or adult — when this unsettling realization that we’ve outgrown the Happy Meal of our Faith and we’re not satisfied. It just happens… many, many times over the course of our lives. And that’s when we go for more food — and maybe even more nutritious food.

Maybe our prayers change from “Now I lay me down to sleep” to also knowing The Lord’s Prayer, or personal prayers.

Maybe our understanding of the Bible changes, or how we relate to God, or to one another.

Or maybe we learn new facts that make us think in new ways – such as today in the Younger Saint’s Moment we talked about how a popular story in Jesus’ time was the tale of Odepius and how he cut out his eye. So Jesus, when saying we should cut off our limbs, maybe was turning that popular story into a lesson that instead of maiming ourselves, we should just not do wrong in the first place.

However it is, our faith changes so that it is nourishing again. It is manna again. It is salt within us, so we can be at peace with one another.

It is okay where ever you are on your faith journey and where you have been. We’re all on this faith journey. We’re all traveling at different paces, starts and stops, going backwards, running forwards, and utterly veering off the road. But together, we’re all walking together — and none of us will lose the reward of a cup of ever-flowing, ever life-giving water because we travel this journey in the name of Christ.

Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio 9-27-15