Tag: Worship

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.

What Child is This?

Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Our Lectionary gives us today the story of two women, both seeking their sons. Hannah goes to see Samuel and finds him in the temple. Of course, she expected to find him there. She presented him to the temple to be raised as a priest in gratitude for God hearing her prayers to grant her a child. We’re told that each year Hannah goes to the temple and brings with her a ephod, an outer garment that priests wear sort of like a sleeveless shirt. She’s sewn and made this for her growing little boy and she gives it to him to wear until the following year when he’s outgrown and worn it out.

What child is Samuel? He’s a child of God. Gifted by God, regifted back to God, and being raised by priests of God. He’ll grow up to be a great prophet.

But he didn’t start off being raised by priests. He started off being at home, until he was between the ages of 3 to 12. So all those formative early years he was raised by Hannah… and Hannah must have raised him right, for he comes to the temple already knowing of God and prepared to be a servant of the divine.

We’re told that the work God begins, Hannah continues, and the work Hannah begins, God continues – everyone wants this little boy to grow up in wisdom and with the love of God.

Mary is the other woman. She, too, has visited the temple as she does so yearly for the Passover Festival. Like Hannah, she came to the temple with gifts to leave there – and like Hannah she goes back home after visiting. However, Hannah purposefully left her son with the priests. Mary did not. Hannah knows her son is being well cared for and loved by Eli. Mary does not know where her son is, or who he is with, or if he is in danger. Hannah has peace and praises God. Mary has fear and pleads with God.

We heard in Luke’s Gospel how Mary and Joseph leave their traveling extended family and book it back to Jerusalem to search the streets and markets, homes and place of worship for Jesus. When, where, and how will they find Jesus?

Will they find him safe? Will he be with friends? With family? Is he crying at the gates? Is he stolen – kidnapped? Is he sold into slavery, left for dead in a gutter, after all of these years, have King Herod’s men identified the new born king and finished their job at making sure there is no king but Herod Jr.?

At last, after days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple sitting and talking, listening and asking questions of the rabbis. Mary exclaims, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” She’s so angry, so elated — her deep, deep love of Jesus makes her this furious because she was so, so worried about what had happened to him.

And Jesus is a typical kid, “Why were you searching for me? I’m not lost.” Then Jesus becomes an atypical kid by concluding, “Don’t you know I must be with my father?”

We’re told Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is saying. I picture them grabbing up their son roughly, covering him in kisses and wanting to beat his pre-teen bottom blue for giving them this fright and wandering off without permission. I think they must apologize to the rabbis and thank them for caring for their wayward son. And they must march Jesus out of Jerusalem with threats of being grounded until he can grow a proper beard.

After this passage, we’re told Jesus, like Samuel, grow in wisdom as he ages and grows with God’s love and human love. After this, when nearly thirty, Jesus begins his public ministry.

Jesus doesn’t start open rebellion with mom and dad. This scene isn’t the beginning of teenage years where he fights them tooth and nail for independence. He frequently tells people to follow the laws of the prophets, which include honoring your father and mother and not giving them trouble and woes.

And Mary treasures what has happened in her heart. She thinks on these things, ponders them, takes them out of her mental memory box and looks them over. I think, later, she begins to wonder, and put the pieces together, of just who this child she’s raising is.

She’s raising the boy devout. She takes him to the temple and observes the holidays. She teaches him his faith well. But here he is, taking the faith she’s given him and expanding it in new ways she never foresaw.

This happens still nowadays. We raise kids with faith – teach them about their loving heavenly parent, teach them to pray, teach them to follow the Bible… but they make the faith their own. Some are like Samuel, and never give their parents woes. They become more devout and are a source of pride for their parents. Some kids grow up to be like Jesus, and give their parents woes. They become more devout, too, but their devotion isn’t “main stream” and “traditional.” They try out new ways of worshiping God and they rock the religious boat.

Every generation has it’s boat rockers who explore where, when, and how to find Jesus. The Christian music we listen to on the radio – the Christian Rock – was once that far-out and distrusted way of worshiping God. Now these songs find their way into even more traditional services and churches. A couple of them are in our hymnal. Taze, another music style, is in our hymnal and once was suspect. I know several of us are suspect of large churches — “mega churches” — or churches that have gymnasiums, coffee centers, projectors, or lack pews.

At one time, organ music was very suspect and banned from churches. But… many of us hear God in the songs and hymns.

Generation after generation, people take the faith given to them by their parents, and make it their own. Generation after generation, people hear the angels sing and go looking for the good news, the messiah: go looking for Jesus.

You see, Jesus has a way of slipping out of sight. We all get traveling along the road we’re used to, like we do every year, and we assume Jesus is with us… but you know, he might not be. It may be that the Way of God has moved, the spirit has moved, and our old ways no longer travel with Christ.

Jesus says he doesn’t get lost. He is always about his father’s business, always doing God’s work and in God’s house.

We get lost. We lose sight of Jesus, and his beacon telling us the will of God.

Then we have to go seeking the Christ again. We know he’ll be with God, we know he’s always residing with us, but… at the same time… these wonderful assurances and these wonderful truths don’t tell us anything solid. They don’t tell us whether or not Christian Heavy Metal is acceptable, let alone do they tell us if we should suddenly have Christian Rock songs in our services. No, knowing Jesus is with God and not lost, and that we’re to discern when, where, and how to find Christ, is not the same as having solid answers at all.

Instead, we’re told our faith is a journey where hopefully we increase with years and wisdom. We’re told each generation finds Jesus is new ways, hears God in new forms, and understands our shared sacred text in different interpretations.

It’s really, really hard to not think those who are different than us surely have lost Christ. It’s tempting to think we need to find them and yank them back to where we found Jesus… but… our scripture challenges us to examine ourselves… and realize that God is ever new, ever speaking, ever moving, ever creating life, and generation after generation must make their own pilgrimage to find Christ in the temple of God.

We can give someone new to the faith our map, told them what works for us, and guide them for awhile… but that child of God is their own person. And when, where, and how they feel the presence of God may be totally different than when, where, and how we feel God’s presence.

So treasure the experiences of others in your heart. Ponder them. Wonder. When you meet someone who experiences God in a way totally alien than you, wonder: what child is this? And give God loving thanks for coming to us in so many different ways. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 12-27-2015