Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“Nowhere. Everywhere. Now Here.”
A Sermon on Luke 24:44-52 and Acts 1:6-14
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On Ascension Sunday (the Seventh Sunday of Easter)
May 28, 2017

Grace and peace to each of you this morning. It’s the last day of our 50 day celebration of Easter. Theses glorious days where we have celebrated the truth that is fundamental to everything we do as a Christian community: He is Risen! (He is Risen indeed). Today is the final time that I will put on the white stole until the last day of next fall, All Saint’s Day.

And today marks the beginning of three most important liturgical feast days: Ascension Sunday today, Pentecost next week, and then soon after Trinity Sunday. And although the liturgical calendar committee has not yet formally accepted my suggestion, we are now in what I lovingly refer to as the Season of Seuss. Dr. Seuss to be exact.

A season where everything is wonderfully whimsical. Where ration and reason are thrown out the window. Where the liturgical colors are a bit more vivid… lots of feverish reds and bright oranges.  A season of imagination where we are reminded: the Kingdom of God is bigger and better than even our very best thinking. A season about the heart and not the head. A season where men disappear into thin air, spirits blow about like windstorms, and something that is really one is really three and still somehow one. It’s Seussical- “Red fish, blue fish, one fish, two fish… everyday, from there to here and here to there, funny things are everywhere.” A season of beautiful mystery, the season of the “what if” of doubt and the “what now” of faith….So as we enter this season, please join me in prayer:

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. 

So I’ve spent some time outside our church once again this week pondering the church and our role in the world today. Maybe it was the facts we heard on the news this week of how religious affiliation continues to drop in our state and that young people are less likely to claim religion has an important role in their lives- what does this mean and why? So my plan was to sit near our bell tower and try to engage those who walked by our building in a conversation about what they see and who they think we are….  And in doing that one afternoon I learned some interesting things, mainly that if people see a man standing outside the church with a yellow legal pad trying to talk to you they will do whatever it takes to get out of that conversation- crossing the street, pretending to talk on a cell phone, suddenly unable to speak English…. because people assume the guy with the yellow legal pad is probably trying to save them.

Some did stop and talk to me, one gentleman informed me that he used to work here in our daycare, although he did clarify “but that was 20 years ago, I am sure nothing is the same in the building…” (I almost invited him in just to see his face). Several people stopped and looked at the building and said, “well it says it’s a church so I assume that is what it is…” Several folks said, ”well, this is the building we park across from every day and that is all we know.” My quick conclusion is that the vast majority of folks who walk by have no idea what the building at 901 Trinity is or what happens inside it.

Which is pretty common for us… In the almost year that I have been here and had friends and others come to the office, one of the things I hear over and over is “I have driven by here so many times and had no idea his beautiful church was inside.” We hear this exact comment all the time from those who use our black box theater.

So since I was not learning all I needed to learn by standing outside the church, I enlisted some help. I asked several members of our community if they could have a conversation with a co-worker or a friend about church, specifically why they don’t go and what they think of church in our world today (which is not a scary conversation if it’s a conversation- meaning you want to learn and listen, you are not simply trying to talk them into coming here on Sunday morning).

Here is some of what I got back:

“There is nothing about church that appeals to me, I am a Christian and I love God and Jesus and I pray. I am not anti-religion, I am just anti-church. Everything others say they get out of the church I can do on my own.”

“Maybe it’s just that I did not grow up in a family that went to church so this whole thing does not make sense to me… when I ask people about why they got to church my immediate thought is I can find easier ways to find everything they just said.”

“Because it’s irrelevant and outdated and always on the wrong side of things….”

“Because if you look at the history of the church, that is not a story I want to be part of…”

“People don’t speak to you if you don’t dress or look right. I never fit in at the churches I went to an I don’t care enough at this point in my life to make an effort for people who can’t accept me the way I am.”

“As someone who has finally overcome addiction and finally accepted my sexuality, I find the church to be exclusive and hateful and I don’t need that in my life.”

“My dad beat my mom all the time…. The pastor of the church told her that she had to stay married because God said so. I tried to help her leave a few times after I moved out and the church always convinced her to go back. She finally left about 10 years ago and was kicked out of the church. She still believes leaving my dad was a sin, but hopes God will forgive her of it. I can’t believe in a God like that.”

“Church is just a bunch of people trying to one up each other.”

What I heard over and over was stories of the church either out of touch with the world or a obstruction to personal and spiritual growth…. hearing about the church from the non-churched what I learned was that we are either blocking the way or not even worth noticing to many in our community…. If they don’t have a story about something wrong we have done, then they don’t even notice us… For those outside this building we are either an obstacle in the way or we are totally irrelevant

And our text today addresses this exact situation.

Luke gives us two accounts of this day, it closes his first Gospel (the Gospel according to Luke, the story of Jesus) and it opens his second (the Gospel of Acts, the story of the church). We have heard both of these accounts read this day, because this story takes two readings to make sure that we heard it right the first time.

Jesus who has risen from the dead, Jesus who has been victorious over all, Jesus who has overcome, Jesus who is Lord of all… this Jesus who for 50 days now has been making post resurrection appearances to the faithful, Jesus gathers his disciples together and begins to teach them once again…. In the first account, it starts with a question about when will the Kingdom finally be here? This is one of the disciples’ favorite questions to ask. Jesus responds with a line we need to know by hear that this is not their business to know, but instead their job is to go and bring about the Kingdom, in other words this is “not yours to control but you do need to be part of it.” And then according to Luke, “a cloud took him up out of their sights.”

All of this happened on the road to Bethany. Bethany is about 1.5 miles from Jerusalem, so this is a busy and crowded road. People are constantly headed to Jerusalem or back home from Jerusalem. It’s a pretty steady stream of folks…so I want you to imagine yourself as one of those traveling back home to Bethany. You had to go into Jerusalem because you needed to go to the market and it’s been a long day of travel and you are now headed home. Those traveling around you are all ready to get back to Bethany. And as you approach Bethany you see the strangest sight, 11 men just standing there looking up at the clouds. You stop as one naturally would and look up but you see nothing. So you glance back at the guys and they are all still there just staring up…. Confused you work your way around them, because you are ready to get somewhere and all these guys are just blocking the road standing there looking at nothing.

The second account from Acts…. Same question: when will the kingdom be here? Same answer: it’s not your business to know this, it’s your business to do the work. And then again Jesus ascends on a cloud and the disciples are left standing there gazing up towards heaven… blocking the road, in the way, looking like crazy people doing something no one else on the road understood.

And then suddenly two angels appear (because at this point in the story, why not?)….. “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. Now get about doing the work he left you to do. You look silly, you are blocking people’s way and it’s time to get about bringing the Kingdom of God here.”

I wonder where those heavenly messengers are this day…. Because we, the faithful seem to be in the same place….. located on a busy road with people who walk by us everyday and we seem to just be 11 folks in the way standing there looking at something that no one else can see. The world sees us hurry to and from committee meetings in this place, to and from Sunday school and choir, to deacon meeting and council meeting, to task forces and action teams, to special programs and I could go on and on…. But what are we really doing? And that is the better of the two options today, those who see us as just irrelevant, even worse are those who see us coming and going from this place and see us joining into a story that has been so harmful and hateful to so many in our world.

So maybe today we need those two messengers to stop back by: “Beloved Community of First Austin, why do you just stand there looking up towards the sky? Why do you come and go from this place all the time busying yourself with committee meetings and programs? What are you really doing? Do you think you are going to see Jesus just float back on down? Your job is not to wait and watch, your job is to get about doing the work Jesus left you to do. You look silly standing there in the way and let’s not even get started on some of the harm you have caused, instead let’s get about doing the work of bringing the Kingdom of God here to earth.”  

And that means doing the very work of Jesus…. Erasing barriers that divide us from other people, walking the border places in our world, going to the places where people are hurting, feeding the hungry, giving voice to the poor, welcoming the stranger and the immigrant and the refugee, opening up our table for all to sit at, telling stories of God’s grace in ways that are relatable and relevant to our world today, challenging the status quo and any structure of power that leaves folks out, pointing to the God who is love and inviting folks into that relationship.

You see my crazy hunch is that when we start doing those things suddenly people are going to know us for who we truly are, the very hand and feet of Jesus doing the work that has always been our work to do. They won’t see irrelevance, they won’t see hate, they won’t see us as in the way…. In fact they might finally see the Way.

A few years ago at University Baptist Church I got this crazy idea and we made it happen: we took a few big pieces of ply board and we painted them with chalkboard paint and then wrote across the top: I need a church that ____ and then left rows and rows of lines. We put these blackboards in front of the church where people often walked and we put chalk for people to write their answers.

Here are some of the responses:

Is Spirit filled
Warm and secure
Less corrupt than politics
Shows love
Would accept me as a gay man and my husband
Challenges me
Is about God
Is accepting
Gives me release
Gives me a story
Makes me think
Helps me know God personally
Encourages me to be still
Encourages creativity for everyone
Welcomes all
Is real
Values my opinion
Show’s God’s love to all
Is willing to tackle the real problems of our world
Would like to get to know me
Makes my heart sing
Is fun
Believes God is still active
Loves me
Let’s me be me
Is about questions and not just answers
That let’s Jesus in

What I learned was those outside the church want a church that actually looks like the life of Jesus and I bet if we put blackboards in front of our church, we would get the same answers… and some of it we are already doing, just maybe not in the right place and some of it we need to get doing….

The church does not need to be in the way…. The church needs to be the Way of Jesus.

So may we get about the work of Jesus: Erasing barriers that divide us from other people, walking the border places in our world, going to the places where people are hurting, feeding the hungry, giving voice to the poor, welcoming the stranger and the immigrant and the refugee, opening up our table for all to sit at, telling stories of God’s grace in ways that are relatable and relevant to our world today, challenging the status quo and any structure of power that leaves folks out, pointing to the God who is love and inviting folks into that relationship.

Amen and Amen.

*artwork: The Ascension of Christ, Painting by Salvador Dali, 1958


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