Sermon – June 1, 2014 – Ascension of Our Lord

Ascension of Our Lord
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

While I have worshiped God in mostly smaller church buildings, I have had the pleasure of visiting some pretty big church buildings. Some of them have been large buildings or even cathedrals right here in the United States. But the biggest churches I have ever been in were the many shrines, basilicas, and cathedrals in the Holy Land, in Israel and Palestine. These buildings are truly HUGE.

Standing in the back of the Church of the Nativity, I couldn’t make out any of the features of the priest leading the Mass way up in the front. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is so huge, I got lost in it trying to find the front door to get back out.

One of the architectural and artistic features of many of these buildings was the way in which they drew my eyes upward. I didn’t even have to lie on my back to get a good view. When I walked in, my head naturally turned back as the room opened up before me. The ceilings of these places are just as intricately carved, painted, and built as the rest of them. Sometimes, the ceilings are domed and painted with beautiful depictions of the shrine’s patron saint, or of Jesus, particularly at the Ascension, which makes sense.

I could sit in one of the pews or seats in those buildings and just tilt my head back, looking at this art, while everything else happened around me. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, personally.

But what happens when the church itself tilts back and is content to simply stare up? What happens when, like the disciples, the church gets stuck, eyes turned up, unable to see anything around them?

The day of the Ascension falls on the sixth Thursday after Easter. This also, uncoincidentally, is 40 days after Easter. According to one account of the Ascension, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples for 40 days, until he was taken up into heaven.

The Feast of the Ascension, then, is significant in many ways. In one way, it is the end of the Easter season, the end of the extended celebration of Immanuel, God With Us in the person of Jesus Christ. Imagine if you suddenly at a second chance to speak to, talk with, and eat with a loved one who has died, and you’ll understand why the 40 days after Easter were so special to the disciples. I wouldn’t want to let go, either.

When a person like that leaves again, for the last time, it is hard to let go. Like the disciples, I would want to keep my eyes on Jesus as long as possible. They lost him once. Would they be able to handle losing him again? It wouldn’t seem real—I mean, they just got him back, and he’s leaving? Maybe if they just stand there a little longer, he’ll come back…

But Jesus doesn’t come back. And while he promises his continued presence by way of the Holy Spirit and promises to return, there is no denying that this chapter of history has come to a close. The Gospel According to Luke ends with this story, the story we heard read this morning, with Jesus leaving. The party is over, so to speak.

However, while the Ascension marks the end of one chapter in the story God continues to write, it also marks the beginning of a new one. The author of Luke’s Gospel is the same person who then followed it up with the Acts of the Apostles. And what is the first story told in this, the sequel to Jesus’s life? The Ascension.

During the 40 days in between the resurrection and the Ascension, the author reports, Jesus urged the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. And when it comes, on Pentecost, it comes with a bang.

The Spirit comes like fire, much different than when it comes like a gentle dove at Jesus’s baptism. The disciples go from clueless, incompetent followers to bold, charismatic leaders who inspire thousands to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It is a dramatic, earth-changing event, perhaps the most important event in the history of the church.

There is a reason that the author begins the story of the church with the story of the Ascension. In it is the promise for things yet to come: the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return.

But—and there’s always a but, isn’t there?–what about today? Today, we move out of Easter, but we haven’t moved into Pentecost. We are in one of those rare in between times. More so than Advent and Lent, seasons of preparation, the short time in our liturgical calendar between Easter and Pentecost marked by the day of the Ascension is a time of waiting. How are we to spend the time?

If we were to follow the lead of the disciples, our eyes would be continually turned upward, waiting for God, waiting for Jesus to come back and tell us what to do. It would like laying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. And as the kids this morning explained, the problem with looking at the ceiling is that you can’t see anyone else around you.

This is exactly what many churches do. They keep their heads tilted back, always looking for Jesus, focusing on their relationship with God. Like the disciples, they spend all of their time in their temple, offering praise to God. They stay in the same place, sometimes literally and physically.

Worse, there are churches that do the exact opposite—that look down, or ‘navel-gaze’, so to speak, who look neither around them nor to God, but are too concerned with themselves to take notice of anything else. They focus on what they want, their stuff, their building, their traditions, as if those are the most important gifts God has ever given to the world.

That’s not the point of the Ascension. There’s a reason that, when the disciples are caught standing around doing nothing but looking for Jesus, two messengers from God show up and, in different words, tell them to get moving.

Ascension time may be a time of waiting, but it is by no means a time of waiting passively. This is a time of active waiting, of actively preparing for Christ’s return, of creating space for the Holy Spirit to continue the work that God started and that Jesus made intimate.

In this way, Ascension is a blueprint for how the church should live in the time in between now and Jesus’s return. The church cannot look up so often that it neglects the people around it, both inside and outside of it. We as the people of God are called to work in the in between time, to be the presence of God for those who need it.

It is appropriate to turn our eyes to God. It is necessary to do so, in fact, if we ever hope to keep our eyes on what’s important. But it is also necessary to turn our eyes to the image of God in our neighbors, to recognize the Spirit moving through them, and to engage with that Spirit.

This summer, there will be new faces, new neighbors, new people in our community. Will we be too busy looking up to notice them?

"The Holy Trinity" by A. Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – May 25, 2014 – Easter 6A

Sixth Sunday in Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

There are some things we just don’t talk about very much in Lutheran circles. Not because they’re bad, or because we’re bad, but we tend to focus on some things and not others.

Well, this morning, we’re going to talk about one of those things. We are going to talk about God.

We as Christians profess trust and faith in a triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We talk about God the Father a lot, and Jesus Christ, the Son, like, all the time. But when was the last time you thought about, talked about, or prayed to the Holy Spirit?

Don’t be worried if you can’t remember. While there are parts of Christianity that are very focused on the work of the Holy Spirit, for a good deal of our history, we haven’t really known what to do with this third person of the Trinity.

There has always been some concept of the Spirit of God inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters: Christ quotes Isaiah talking about the “Spirit of the Lord”, and the story of Genesis begins with the Spirit of God blowing over the waters. The Spirit was understood as an agent of God’s will, making it real.

But the early Christians didn’t have a very clear understanding of this spirit. In the original Creed of Nicaea, the church fathers had this to say about the Holy Spirit:

“And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” That’s it!

Granted, the creeds don’t say much about God the Father, focusing mostly on the work of Jesus Christ, but still, the leaders of the church, gathering in 325 CE, 300 years after Christ died and was raised again, could only say that they believed in the Holy Spirit, and nothing else?

As we pick up Jesus’s speech from last week (or, as one commentator described it, yes, Jesus is still talking), it is important to be reminded that this speech, part of Jesus’s long farewell speech to his disciples, takes place on the night of the Last Supper, which is just before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and executed. He knows that this is about to happen, and, I think, so do his disciples. At least somewhat.

At the very least, they know that Jesus is not going to be around anymore. Remember last week, Thomas, my favorite disciple, is upset that they are being left behind. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, a once in a lifetime, once in all of history occurrence, can’t really leave, can he?

Jesus’s answer, of course, is yes. But just because Christ is leaving doesn’t mean that God is leaving. Enter the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is described as another advocate. What is an advocate? In Greek, the word parakletos, or “advocate” means this:

1) Someone who speaks on behalf of another when the other stands accused.
2) Someone who offers help, comfort, assistance, or support to another,
3) Or, most literally, one who walks alongside.

The job of the Holy Spirit, then, is to walk alongside us, give us comfort and aid, strengthen us, nourish us, to speak to God for us when we find ourselves unable or unwilling, to lead us and stand by us. Or, as one commentator put it: “The Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks an awful lot like Jesus.”

Nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ first left the world in death, and then, after being raised to life again, left to prepare the way for us to the new reign of God. For any other person, that would spell the end of the story. This is Memorial Day weekend, when we as a country recognize the loss of loved ones fighting for what they believed to be right. For those who have personally felt that loss, the disciples’ fear of being left as orphans stings particularly true.

But we as Christians worship a living, breathing, present God, not a dead or absent God.

Faith is not a memory of something past. It wouldn’t be particularly useful if that’s all it was. Christians are not a people who dwell in the past, as if there is nothing for them to be or do in the present.

Instead, Christians are a people who are always looking ahead to the coming reign of God. Just as the Holy Spirit gave life at the beginning of creation, so too does it breathe life into a people called by God to do even greater things than one man 2000 years ago did.

The Holy Spirit is in us, Jesus says. God is never far off, but always near, giving each of us life and each our communities life as well. This is why we have faith. We could not trust a relationship we’d never experienced. Without God’s presence, we have nothing to hold onto. Jesus was only one man and could physically touch only so many people.

I said earlier that the Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks an awful lot like Jesus. But if the Holy Spirit is in us, then the Holy Spirit is an advocate that also looks an awful lot like this congregation.

This community is appropriately named, Faith Lutheran Church. The heart of Christian life is faith, trust, and a relationship with the God who gathers us together. That faith influences how we live, how we treat each other, how we treat our neighbors, and all of creation.

The Holy Spirit is alive and well here in this place. I’m going to ask you to do something I’ve not asked you to do before.

I get up here and I do an awful lot of talking. Now, it’s your turn. I want you to talk with the people around you, especially if you do not know who they are, and tell them how you’ve seen this community of faith be like the Holy Spirit, an advocate, a helper, a comforter, a community that walks beside and supports others.

I want you to discover the ways in which the presence of God has been felt by your neighbors.

“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” You have heard today how this community of faith has embraced its calling. You have heard today where the Holy Spirit has been working, how the command to love one another as Christ loved us has been lived out.

Don’t stop now. The Holy Spirit is still moving and working. We don’t look to the past as if that’s all there is. Be the kingdom of heaven here on earth, for God is with you.

Featured Image: “The Holy Trinity” by A. Davey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

"A new and accurat map of the world" by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon – May 18, 2014 – Easter 5A

Fifth Sunday in Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

I seem to be on a movie reference binge these past few weeks.

One of my favorite movies is August Rush. I will not hesitate to admit that the movie makes me cry every single time I watch it. Trust me—I just tested this theory yesterday and, yep, cried.

August Rush is a modern urban fairy tale about a boy named Evan Taylor, an orphan, who sets out to find his parents. He has never met them before. He has no idea what they look like, where they live, or even their names. He knows absolutely nothing about them.

He doesn’t know that his mother is a professional cellist with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, or that his father is the lead singer of a rock band. He doesn’t know that they never saw each other after their one night together, and that they have no idea that he is out there somewhere.

What he does know, however, is that music is all around him—every whisper in the wind, every honk of a horn, clang of a wind chime. Music has been around him for as long as he can remember, and he is convinced that his parents can hear it too. With nothing more than this faith in music, he sets out on a blind journey to find his parents, although he doesn’t know the way.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of too many images that better describe the Christian life. The way isn’t always very clear, and we don’t like to admit that.

Those of you who were here the week after Easter might recall that I really like the disciple Thomas. He has this tendency to always say what everyone else is too timid to say, a quality I admire.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is going on ahead of them to some other place to prepare for their arrival, Thomas stands up and says what everyone else was thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

I don’t blame him for asking this. Jesus is not only their teacher and mentor, but their friend and brother. More than once in my life I’ve had to leave all of the people I love behind, and people have left me behind. It is a terrible feeling, which I’m sure some of you have felt, too. Now imagine if it was Jesus leaving you behind.

How are they to know what to do next? Who is to guide them, shepherd them, care for them, and love them? They have left everything behind to literally follow this man on whatever paths he takes them, and now, they are going to be left on their own. He assumes that they know what to do next, but Thomas has the guts to admit that, no, they don’t, and that scares them.

Think of it this way: when I went to Israel and Palestine, we had a guide, Khalil. He took us everywhere, did all of our translating, got us in and out of places quickly and without any trouble. Except for one.

There is a building in Hebron that holds both a mosque and a synagogue. It is also the one place our guide was not allowed to enter by law. So he sent us ahead while he stayed behind. We hadn’t even gotten up the steps and we already felt lost. Suddenly, Khalil’s absence, which at first had seemed to be an inconvenience, was now a terrifying situation. We were walking into this building blind.

Very often, as Christians, it feels like we are off on a blind journey. Christ lived, died, and lived again 2000 years ago. We don’t know what he looked like. We have an idea of what he said. It’s been so long since anyone saw Jesus in the flesh.

And yet, we make extraordinary claims about a man we’ve never met. We claim that his life and death and return to life were not just events that occurred in a specific time and in a specific place for a specific group of people. We boldly claim that it was all for us, as well.

We boldly claim that, far from being removed to some remote historical circumstance, Jesus Christ is here and present with us today, right now, in this place, with this group of people. We go so far as to say that, in the bread and wine on the table, Jesus is physically, truly, and completely present, literally in our midst.

How can we possibly make such claims? How can we possibly know? How can we be sure that what we claim and what we profess to be true actually is, indeed, true?

And the answer to that question, brothers and sisters, is that we can’t.

I mean, think about it. We are just like Evan Taylor, who has never once seen or heard from his parents. Like the disciples, we are expected to know not only where we are going, but how to get there.

We don’t even have the advantage the disciples had, to be able to see and hear and touch Jesus face to face. They got to literally follow in Jesus’s footsteps, stepping in the imprints of his feet in the sand. And even they could not understand where Jesus was going.

Or, at least, they think they didn’t. In a rare departure from how the Gospel writers usually portray the disciples, here, Jesus expresses an unusual confidence in his disciples and their future.

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

“You know the way to the place where I am going.” You know. You don’t think you know, but you do.

The disciples are thinking in terms of place, and the road they would have to walk to get there. But Jesus reveals to them what they’ve known all along. The know the way, because Jesus himself is the way.

What does Jesus mean when he tells them that he is the way, the truth and the life? Unfortunately, we’ve tended to add to Jesus’s words.

My words and teachings are the way and the truth and the life.

Living by the 10 commandments is the way and the truth and the life.

Belonging to the right denomination is the way and the truth and the life.

We’ve turned the way the truth and the life into a barrier that prevents entry, rather than the very thing that allows entry.

Because when Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he means that HE is the way the truth and the life.

Jesus Christ is God incarnate, come to earth in the most intimate way possible, wrapped in bone and muscle and skin, walking through the dirt and the dust and the grass, breathing the air, bathing in the water.

Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and he is right—Jesus is the way God got to us.

Suddenly, it makes more sense. What made Jesus different than just speaking through the prophets like God used to do is the intimacy, the personal nature of the incarnation. For the first time in the history of creation, God could and did touch creation in a way only creation can. God could and did form relationships with human beings.

All of this is well and good, though, for those who actually lived and could touch Jesus. What about us?

One of the great things about the movie August Rush is that Evan doesn’t need to have met or seen his parents to believe that they are out there, that they are looking for him, and that, eventually, he will find them. He never gives up hope, even when he finds himself in unpleasant circumstances and situations. He follows the music, and trusts that it will draw him to the ones he loves.

All of the Christian life is a journey. In that journey, we are drawn to Christ and God with nothing but our hope that we will finally meet God face to face. We are drawn by the Holy Spirit working through the promises of Christ passed down generation after generation: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” “This is my body; this is my blood.”

Like the disciples, we may not think we know the way. But, like the disciples, God’s mighty deeds and loving acts through Jesus Christ gives us the courage to continue on the way, unable to clearly see the finish, but trusting that God is waiting there for us. Our faith, our trust in those promises, sustains us. No, not even that: God, who gave us our faith, who made those promises, sustains us. And with that knowledge and that assurance, we have nothing left to fear.

Featured Image: “A new and accurat map of the world” by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.