We're not Finished Yet

Easter 7A

Acts 1:6-14


One of my colleagues, The Rev. Keith Fry from Immanuel Lutheran Church, introduced me to a poem called “Stay: A Blessing for Ascension Day,” written by Jan Richardson.  I want to share it with you this morning because I heard in it a metaphor for the 21st century church.

A Blessing for Ascension Day

I know how your mind
rushes ahead
trying to fathom
what could follow this.
What will you do,
where will you go,
how will you live?

You will want
to outrun the grief.
You will want
to keep turning toward
the horizon,
watching for what was lost
to come back,
to return to you
and never leave again.

For now
hear me when I say
all you need to do
is to still yourself
is to turn toward one another
is to stay.

and see what comes
to fill
the gaping hole
in your chest.
Wait with your hands open
to receive what could never come
except to what is empty
and hollow.

You cannot know it now,
cannot even imagine
what lies ahead,
but I tell you
the day is coming
when breath will
fill your lungs
as it never has before
and with your own ears
you will hear words
coming to you new
and startling.
You will dream dreams
and you will see the world
ablaze with blessing.

Wait for it.
Still yourself.

The poem begins with anxiety. The kind of anxiety that often accompanies unchosen change. The kind of anxiety that often accompanies grief, the end to things as they’ve always been.  Surely the disciples experienced that as they were gazing up toward heaven, the now empty sky staring back at them where, just a moment earlier, their friend, their teacher, Jesus had been.[2]  And then the grief – perhaps overwhelming, especially at first. Hadn’t they lost their teacher once already when he had been put to death on the cross. And now, would they have to experience that again?  Did they feel betrayed, this the second time of Jesus’ departure from them?
And what of the church?  Many of us look back and grieve all that has gone before – the pews filled, a youth room filled with laughter and energy, Cunningham Hall bustling with the excitement of a church dinner.  Or we are filled with anxiety. More and more people seem satisfied with a godless life or satisfied with a life worshipping one secular god or another.  So how can we get people in our doors?  Fewer families are able to attend church on a weekly basis.  Fewer people have time to volunteer.  Fewer youth are available to gather at the same time because their schedules pull them in seemingly a million other directions.  “What will you do, where will you go, how will you live?” writes the poet.  “Will we survive?” some of us may dare to ask in a whisper.
But even as we flip through our memories of the church of our childhoods or turn the actual pages of photo albums from St. Mark’s, even as we continue to look back, there is a voice inviting us to turn our gaze.  A voice that understands our desire to “keep turning toward the horizon, watching for what was lost to come back, to return to you and never leave again.” But a voice which encourages us, even amidst that grief, that anxiety, encourages us to turn instead “toward one another” and “to stay” and “wait and see what comes to fill the gaping hole.”  For the disciples this voice took the form of two men in white robes telling them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”[3] And it was just the nudge they needed to be back on their feet, returning to Jerusalem, to begin the ministry of witnessing to which Jesus called them.
Two weeks ago, St. Mark’s Vestry went on retreat.  We set apart 24 hours to move away from our “usual” tasks of budgets, finance, staff structures and the state of the building and to gaze toward one another and to imagine the future.  On Friday evening we spent time together considering why St. Mark’s matters to those of us who are members? We wondered together why does St. Mark’s matter to Evanston?  We shared our aspirations for St. Mark’s.  On Saturday, we drew our visions of what a vibrant, relevant, impactful church community looks like and shared ideas on what it would take to realize such a vision for St. Mark’s. During the retreat, we spent some time looking back at what once was.  But, we spent much more time turning toward one another and imagining a future.
There is another place at St. Mark’s where this type of imagining is happening.  It happens in our Confirm not Conform program as our young people – middle school and high school youth – are encouraged to challenge what they have always been told and to look critically at what they have always believed (or have always been told to believe).   For some, this can cause a bit of anxiety – if I reject these things then what will I do, where will I go, how will I live? 
But this anxiety gradually subsides as they begin to turn toward one another and examine their current beliefs and the beliefs of others, reflecting on why they believe what they do and to determine if those beliefs should be kept or discarded. Turning toward one another and actively waiting to see what comes to fill the gaping hole– “hands open to receive what could never come except to what is empty and hollow.”  And having created a space for what is new, our young people begin to discover that some of what they’ve been told to believe is worth holding on to – they are beliefs that have withstood the test of time and of their critical thinking.  And, there are also some things that they set aside – beliefs that they outright dismiss and many more that they acknowledge they are still processing, they just aren’t sure today.  And that is the gift of the future – the still processing, the acknowledgement that we’re not finished yet – as individuals we are still on a journey and, as community, the church, is not finished yet either. We may need refreshment and renewal, but we are not finished.
As a church we have just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension and our eyes may yet be gazing upwards, longing for the days past.  But, my friends, Pentecost will be here soon and we have much work to do.  And though we may not “know it now, cannot even imagine what lies ahead,” we can and must believe that “the day is coming when breath will fill our lungs as it never has before and with our own ears we will hear words coming to us new and startling. We will dream dreams and we will see the world ablaze with blessing.”  And isn’t that exactly what Jesus promised the disciples just before he ascended into heaven?  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[4]  We are Christ’s witnesses . . . “Wait for it. Still yourself. Stay.”

[1] Jan Richardson, “Ascension/Easter7: Stay,” The Painted Prayerbook: Word, Image, Faith,  accessed May 27, 2017.
[2] Acts 1:9-10.
[3] Acts 1:11.
[4] Acts 1:8.


Simply, Keep My Commandments

Easter 6A

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[1]  I’ve been reading this sentence over and over again this week.  Sometimes even saying it out loud in my office when no one is around to look at me funny.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  I keep reciting it, in part, because I want there to be more to the sentence.  For example, here are some versions that I like better. They are clearer:
1.     “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments” – simple cause and effect. If this, then that.
2.     Or, how about this version: “If you love me, you will want to keep my commandments” – an acknowledgement that my doing and my wanting are not always the same thing; an acknowledgement of my full humanity – foibles and all.
3.     Or, maybe this version: “If you love me, you won’t be able to help yourself – you will keep my commandments.”  I admit, this is my favorite.  There’s a sense of new love in it, right?  I fall in love with someone and I can’t help myself, I buy them flowers or a treat at the bakery.  I fall in love with someone and I want to be with them all the time.  I am infatuated.  If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments because that’s what love drives us to do – to please the object of our love.
But we don’t get any of that. We simply get, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  And immediately after this we get the promise of Pentecost – that Jesus will send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, an advocate to abide in and with us.[2] And too the promise of the second coming, that Jesus will not leave us orphaned but will come to us again.[3]  And then our passage ends where it began, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”[4]  And it all leaves me wanting something more. Because it makes me worry that Jesus’ love is too dependent on my actions and that is not at all comfortable.
Jesus’ love depending on my actions makes me really uncomfortable BUT, when it is Jesus’ love depending on someone else’s actions, then, suddenly, it’s not so bad.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was pretty upset by an executive order issued by the President and by Congress’ move to undo the Affordable Care Act and I stood here in this very spot and proclaimed “white evangelicals are practicing a Christianity that Jesus would not recognize as a reflection of his life and death witness to the gospel.”[5]
It felt good to say that. It felt good to acknowledge that when people do things that I think are really, really abominable that they are not demonstrating their love for Jesus and to use a passage like this morning’s, twist it around just a bit, and soon I’ve convinced myself – and maybe you as well – that it says: “They who have my commandments and do not keep them are those who do not love me; and those who do not love me will not be loved by my Father, and I will not love them and will not reveal myself to them.”  But, it doesn’t say that.  It doesn’t say that at all.  It simply says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” 
So, what to do – besides walking around reciting the words over and over again (which, by the way, is not a bad spiritual discipline in the great scheme of things)?  Most scholars assume that the gospel of John was written for an audience of believers – in other words, it was probably written for Jews who already were followers of Jesus.  The text was not written to convert people; rather, it was meant to uphold and strengthen those who already believed so that they would continue believing, so that they would have courage to believe, so that they would – now several decades after Jesus’ death – continue to keep the faith. 
So the ‘you’ in the “if you love me” sentence is us – it’s believers.  We cannot assume that the “you” applies to non-believers because they were not the author’s intended audience.  So, it is not a passage that we can use with any integrity to say that only Christians are saved.  But, and perhaps this is even more important, it is also not a passage that can be used for finger-wagging at other believers.  If that were the case it would read, “If they love me, they would keep my commandments.”
So what’s left?  It’s us.  It is a passage that is for believers.  It is an invitation for us to take an honest look at our own lives – individually and corporately.  And ask ourselves, “Are we loving Jesus?”  “Are we keeping Jesus’ commandments?”  And God knows there is no simple litmus test for that.  Oftentimes circumstances are so complex that it’s not a simple yes or no that will determine our next course of action.  We have to pray and discern and listen for God’s call to us. We need constantly to ask, “What is the next right thing to do?” “What’s the next right, loving thing to do?” And we need to remind ourselves that sometimes we might get it wrong.
And it’s that part – the possibly being wrong part – that I think those middle verses of today’s passage speak to.  Because if Jesus’ words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” cause us to live in fear of doing the wrong thing rather than to rejoice in our love of Jesus, then we need those middle verses.  We need to hear that God has given us another Advocate, that God has sent the Spirit of truth to be with us forever.
And forever is not conditional, my friends.  Forever is not dependent on anything we do or do not do.  Forever is not dependent on our action or inaction.  Forever is dependent only on God and we are never abandoned by God.  For we are loved.  And because we are loved we are free to rejoice in our love of Jesus and keep Jesus’ commandments and know with certainty that “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Forever.
And because we are loved, we are also free to walk around with a single sentence repeating in our minds or maybe even being uttered by our lips: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” See what comes to you if you do.  Let me know what you discern.  Because I’m not done yet.

[1] John 14:15.
[2] John 14:16-17.
[3] John 14:18-20.
[4] John 14:21.
[5] Bullock, Debra, “Serving as Christ’s Mirror to the World: Sermon for May 7,2017”, Turtle on Wheels, May 8, 2017, accessed May 18, 2017. (Note: never cited myself before. . . now I have. Probably didn’t need to; but, there it is).