Saturday, December 22, 2007

Images from Isaiah

Images of Isaiah #3 - “Birthing Joy”
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2007
Rev. Dr. Christopher W. Keating, preaching

Text: Isaiah 35:1-10

God’s love is born in us at Christmas, bringing joy and abundance to the blighted portions of our lives.

On Friday, my dentist told me that I would be getting a root canal for Christmas. After peering in my mouth, looking at the x-rays, delivering the news, he stood up, shook my hand and said, “Well, Merry Christmas!”

Oh, yes, tidings of comfort and joy!

Driving home, I became increasingly despondent. While it wasn’t the news I wanted to hear, it was hardly the worst news, either. In fact, life is very good. Our lives are not filled by tragedy, overwhelmed by grief. We are healthy, things are going well for us on the whole. Despite this, my dentist’s diagnosis did little to promote a cheerful holiday mood. So, thinking a bit of physical exertion would improve my attitude, I grabbed Dean and headed outside to finish putting up the Christmas lights. This did seem to help for a while, until I had about two thirds of the lights hanging on the house and realized there were sections on either end of the strands which were not working. And it was becoming dark. As was my mood.

By dinner, most of the family was trying to avoid me.

On Saturday morning, Carol asked me what I was preaching about today and I said, “Joy.” She raised her eyebrows, snickered a bit under her breath and turned away.

And then the Cardinals traded Jim Edmonds.

Let nothing you dismay.

That is certainly the struggle, isn’t it? As much as we try to decorate our lives with strands of joy and the bright lights of happiness, the truth is that for many of us, the joy we proclaim these holy days can seem as artificial and lifeless as a discounted Christmas tree from the clearance aisle at K-Mart. We want so very much to be filled with joy and peace. Yet, as Barrie Shepherd writes, “We seem to find so little peace of any kind these days at Christmastime. We get so occupied in doing things, getting ready, making careful plans, then bringing them to fruition. It’s the most hectic time of year…” We yearn for those happy, joyous Christmas memories that we expect to find. We crave the high of those feelings, so much so we will pay any price, literally pay any price, as if true joy could be purchased or wrapped or shipped. offers free next day shipping, and perhaps maybe joy can be, too.

Our lives in this frantic Yule-a-thon are now are as Isaiah once described: a dry, parched wilderness, a place of emptiness. After graduating from seminary, my first church was in Pueblo CO – a town situated on the front range of Colorado. It is a beautiful town, but completely surrounded by arid, scrub prairie – a vast, empty desert. The first day, I went to work, and Carol started unpacking. She had never lived west of the Mississippi, and quickly began missing trees and green grass. After listening to a television news report about Prairie Dogs in Pueblo carrying bubonic plague, she called me at the office. “Where have you taken me?” she cried.

Let nothing you dismay.

That is the vision Isaiah sets before us today. He lifts the imagination of all who have ever asked the question: “Where have you taken me, Lord?” Isaiah looks out at those dried, parched wasteland, and invites us to see something different. There, in least likely of all places, hope is blossoming. Tall trees are growing, flowers are blooming…God is coming. Joy is everywhere.

Tidings of comfort, tidings of joy.

Sometimes, we can forget to hear how that joyous song erupts. Years ago, Carol led worked with nursing patients, persons who in many respects were like the exiles described by Isaiah: little hope, little memory, abandoned and hopeless. In approaching her work, she spent time thinking about the mysteries of song and rhythm. Grabbing our daughter’s rhythm instruments – tambourines and bells and drums – as she headed out the door one day, Carol thought of an idea. Perhaps when everything else is gone, memories of tempo and rhythm will remain…so passing around the instruments she appointed one person to be the “beat keeper” and the others as followers. It took a while, but pretty soon faces that had faded to empty stares were smiling again, and then laughing, and clapping. God had not disappointed them in that nursing home wilderness. On that day, all saw the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God: the one who strengthens weak hands and makes firm feeble knees, who calms fear-filled hearts, who says to us, “Be strong, do not fear!”

Listen, and see if you can hear that rhythm, too. I hear it in the stories our Women with a Mission group tell as they have reached out to the Burundi Refugee families in Saint Louis. These families, some of whom were in exile in Rwandan refugee camps for decades – for decades – have been invited to start their life over in Saint Louis. Janvier, the father, has a job down the street washing dishes at the Fountains retirement residence. He takes a series of Metro buses from the city to get to his job – and you thought your drive to church this morning was difficult! Other African immigrant groups have formed a fledgling Presbyterian church in Rock Hill, and they are reaching out to this community with us. We will dedicate a part of our Christmas Joy offering to help him and his family continue to hear the song of Christmas… “Be strong, do not fear!”

Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.

The story is told about a group of English folks who were traveling through India’s steamy continent by train. The hot and weary travelers were irritated by the lack of accommodations and with each other, and to make matters worse, a child held in the arms of his father was becoming more and more cranky and ill-tempered. By evening, the baby was crying incessantly…so much so that one of the Englishmen stood up and said, “Would you please give that baby back to its mother?” There was a brief pause, and then the child’s father said, “I’m sorry, I’m trying the best I can, but the body of her mother lies in a casket in the back of this train.” The car became silent. Finally, in the midst of this awkwardness, the man who complained got up, came over to the man and apologized. Then, in a loving embrace, he took the child and held it until she had fallen asleep.

Waters will break forth in the desert, burning sand shall become a pool…and even our broken, parched selves shall be made whole…let nothing you dismay. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

Thursday, October 11, 2007

That Worrisome Word "Commitment"

Ever think about why you do or don't come to church?

A family visited a church for about a year. From all appearances, it was a match made in heaven, or at least in the sanctuary. They fit in perfectly, even made a few friends. They came and participated. Their faces became part of the church's regular life. However, they never joined. The people who study such things report that such behavior is more and more common these days -- churches are full of people who enjoy taking test drives but (for whatever the reason), never join.

Then something surprising happened: the family dropped completely out of sight.

The sociologists tell us that's to be expected, in part because our culture has different meanings of the word "commitment." We like commitments that benefit us -- shorter cell phone contracts, for example. But we become skeptical about commiting to making decisions about joining churches. Afterall, the old wisdom goes, if I join, next thing you know they'll be asking me to serve on Session.

Let's change that.

What I envision for our church is a commitment to hospitality that helps open spaces for a person's individual transformation and growth in Jesus Christ. Church membership is first an individual's response to the call to discipleship in Christ. It is a commitment, yes, but a commitment first to God. It is, as Donald McKim says, "a vow to live a life of discipleship in which one grows in faith and service to Christ, and through the church, the world." Yes, commitment means willingness to serve--either by lighting candles on Sunday or developing the church budget. It also means a willingness to be loved by God in worship -- and to love God's children in mission. The journey towards greater commitment, it seems, is made up of a lot of small steps taken gradually -- not just major steps taken impulsively.

In her book Traveling Mercies, author Anne Lamott describes why she became a Presbyterian--and why she made her then-young son, Sam, attend church regularly.

Lamott was an unmarried pregnant woman when she stumbled upon what she calls her "funky little church" in the San Francisco area. "Almost immediately they set about providing for us. They brought clothes, they brought me casseroles to keep in the freezer, they brought me assurance that this baby was going to be part of the family." (Traveling Mercies, p. 101). At the end of her rope, "the people of St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home--that it's where, when you show up, that have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, 'You come back now.'"

And so they stayed. In faith, Lamott made a commitment to that church. She made a profession of faith to be part of a congregation that not only worships on Sundays but does whatever it takes to live faithfully as Christ's disciples in the world.

In living that commitment, she discovered what she calls "the most profound spiritual truth I know: that even when we're most sure that love can't conquer all, it seems to anyway." (p. 264).

Come to church -- and we'll say "You come back now!"

Friday, September 14, 2007

Holey, Wholly, Holy

Donut Church: A “Hole” New Approach

Woodlawn Chapel is a donut church.

I realized that as I stopped by Donut Palace, our purveyor of finely fried pastries! While I’m an infrequent customer, the owner still greeted me by name and asked about the church. She asked if we were happy with our donut order, and even inquired about my kids. Donut Palace is a small, family-run business which provides a different approach to customer service than, say, Krispy Kremes (whose financial problems have been well publicized on the business pages lately). Donut Palace has a simple vision: the customer is king. Or, as one internet reviewer put it, “It’s kind of like ‘Cheers’ only with donuts.”

For many years, we have “sold” donuts on Sunday morning. All proceeds go to youth ministry. While we work on the honor system, we do ask for contributions. Our motto is this: “Grace is free, donuts cost a buck!” Some weeks we barely cover the cost of the donuts, other weeks we have a surplus. That’s not the point, however. There’s more to being a donut church than merely selling pastries.

As a donut church, we take hospitality seriously. We try to greet visitors by name. We welcome them to our home. We offer refreshment. We take the needs of our community seriously. We don’t cut corners on service. We minister to each other.

We do something else, too. A donut is holey – it has a piece missing. A church that strives to be leaven in the world tries hard to fill in the missing pieces of people’s lives. When the church ceases meeting spiritual needs, it becomes a social club. That’s why we offer Sunday School (it’s for adults, too!). That’s why we take food to Circle of Concern and serve the homeless at Joint Neighborhood Ministries. That’s why we engage questions of faith at all ages and at every stage of life. We’re good at being holey – that is, filling the holes in people’s lives.

Now here’s the point: what’s missing in your life? I’ve seen grown adults arrive at church early so they could scout out their favorite donut and put it in a safe place for later. No joke! They knew that something was missing. We can’t patch every hole, but we can offer assurance, community, acceptance, transformation. We can point the way to a deeper journey with God, and I’m quite certain God can meet your needs. To me, that’s worth getting up early on Sunday mornings. Would you join me?

Call ahead and we’ll save you a donut!

In Faith,


Friday, July 13, 2007

Elisha Transformed

“When Everything Falls to Pieces”
2 Kings -12, 6-14
Rev. Dr. Chris Keating
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Focus: Through the changes of life, we are invited to trust in the power of God, opening ourselves to the grace of God as God leads us into a new future.

God of mercy, you promised never to break your covenant with us. Amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal Word that does not change. Then may we respond to your gracious promises with faithful and obedient lives; through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Change was all around me. The tassel from my graduation cap had been packed away, and I was ready to begin my first “real” job after college. In a few weeks, I would be packing up my stuff and moving to New Jersey from California to start seminary.

Everything was wonderful, life was good, and I was even getting a paycheck.
There was only one problem: a car. You know that whenever a young man has a problem it has to do with either a car or a girl, and in my case it was a car. My parents had been gracious enough to give me my father’s 1980 Ford Escort to take to take to seminary. (Trivia buffs ought to know that this is the same car driven by Pope John Paul II, except mine was five year’s newer.) This was wonderful except for one thing: I had never, ever driven a car with a stick shift. Never mind that I had graduated from college with honors. Never mind that I had been accepted at Princeton Seminary. This was a challenge, and while it was hardly the same as crossing the River Jordan, the fact remained that I wasn’t going to get to New Jersey if I couldn’t get my parent’s car out of the driveway. You would think that it wouldn’t be a hard task. You would think.

I must confess that learning to drive that little four cylinder, four speed car was not the hardest challenge of my life, but it certainly wasn’t fun. One day as I was stopped up hill praying that I would be able to get it into first gear without hitting the person behind me, I remember thinking, “If I can’t learn drive this car, how am I ever going to pass Greek? But that’s another story. The fact is I can still drive stick shift cars!

At the time, I guess the experience was somehow a metaphor for all the change and transition I was experiencing. It was a summer of letting go of the past, and moving toward an uncertain future, and I was filled with all sorts of young adult frustration and anxiety. It seemed to me that all the pieces of my life were being pulled apart.

In time, I’d learn that as bad as that moment seemed, there are seasons of peoples lives when the pieces really do fall apart…when life loses all sense of meaning, and purpose. In time, I’d learn that many, many people experience the raw edge of life cutting into their souls. I’d stand with grieving families, watching loved ones slip away. I’d listen to stories of families torn apart by job losses and personal crises, addictions, and health issues. Facing the banks of their own Jordan Rivers, the people I’d meet would put their own words to Elisha’s question: “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?”

What I didn’t know that summer evening is that these threshold moments keep appearing throughout our lives. Children grow up, jobs end, relationships change, we face health crises in our lives or the lives of those close to us. We scramble to keep pace with these transitions, which many times feel as though our lives have indeed fallen to pieces. We wonder, “Where is God now?”

“Transition,” writes theologian Richard Nelson, “creates a sickening fear that without any changeless realities life has no purpose, no goal, no meaning. Both positive and negative change create stress.”[1] The question for us then becomes how we cling to God as the winds of the Spirit blow around us. How do we open ourselves to God’s leading, how do we say, “Here I am, Lord?”

One answer, I believe, is to remember that the author of change is never far removed from us. Packed into this miracle-laden account of Elijah’s transition from earth to heaven is a reminder of how God speaks to us in the whirlwinds of change. Elijah has come to that place and time when he will be taken by God into heaven. Elisha steadfastly refuses to leave Elijah alone, and is there at the moment Elijah ascends into heaven in the whirlwind. Yet it does not help Elisha to know that God has called to Elijah. He is overcome by grief and pain. His life is in pieces, symbolized by the tearing of his clothing.

Yet, there is grace. Even in the midst of change. Even in the face of abandonment, there is grace. So Elisha spies Elijah’s mantle. So Jesus, as he makes his way to Jerusalem, refrains from letting his disciples become demonic henchmen in spite of being rejected by the Samaritan village. Jesus, it seems, is no Tony Soprano.

Transitions are not easy, yet we are both surprised by grace and sustained by it. In the words of the prayer we prayed earlier, we listen for that one eternal word which does not change amid the ever-changing words of our generation.

Elisha stares at the broken pieces of his life, and bends down to pick up Elijah’s cloak. He let the cloth touch his fingers. Holding it up to his face, he remembered how Elijah had thrown it at him when he had seen him the first time. He remembered how Elijah had told him he had used the mantle to cover his face when God passed by on Mt. Horeb. He remembered. He smelled it. He received it as a sign of grace. A legacy, passed from prophet to prophet…a reminder that God is in this place. God has been there, God is there, and God shall be there in the times to come.

I have been impressed by the work our youth have been doing in Benton Park at Joint Neighborhood Ministries. They have been demonstrating what one pastor calls “humble leadership[2]” among the poor and homeless. Each week, they give up a chance to sleep in, leaving behind neighborhoods where the per capita income is more than twice what it is in the city. They come and they offer themselves, they are living reminders that God is in that place, that God will continue to provide a way for those whose lives are in piece, even when pantries are bare. Likewise, I believe the poor have become gifts of grace to our youth and adults, too…they remind us that it is only by God’s grace that we are sustained in life.

Grace, writes Denise Roy, is there when you “haven’t got a clue,” when you feel as though you’re the worst person in the world. In a book of meditations for mothers, Denice writes that grace “applies the gentle push on your back that keeps you going. Grace is sometimes your only companion in the middle of the night when you’re teetering on the edge of sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and the baby needs more. It’s what keeps you from going crazy when you awake at one in the morning waiting and worrying in every passing minute for your teenager to get home.”[3]

Grace reminds you to move forward, Elisha. Go ahead, pick it up that mantle. Strike the water. Pick it up and remember how Elijah had used it to part the water from side to side. Pick up the mantle, Elisha; pick it up and cross over the threshold of your crisis, assured that God will go with you.

At the very place where he thought God had abandoned, Elisha discovers he is not alone. With his cheeks stained by tears of grief, Elisha is reminded that the God of Israel is the God who makes a way out of no way. In that moment, when everything has fallen to pieces, he knows God has called to him again, inviting him to trust in that grace. And, as the song goes, grace shall lead us home.

And so it is for us are we as we gather around Christ’s table now. Amen.

[1] Richard Nelson, 1 & 2 Kings, (John Knox Press).
[2] Cf Graham Standish, “Humble Leadership,” Alban Weekly (26 March, 2007)
[3] Denise Roy, Momfulness (2007, Jossey-Bass).

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Grace In Time of Need

A Pastoral Letter To the Woodlawn Chapel Community

Earlier this week, a young woman known to many in this church died unexpectedly. Like any tragedy, it left many people feeling lost, confused, grieving. Our hearts were suddenly burst open in by the awkward blows of grief: overwhelmed with sadness, tears, frustration; but also filled with compassion and concern for Wendy's family.

It is in these moments that we stumble along in faith, feeling perhaps as though God doesn't care or even that God has stopped caring. Grief hits us like the nonstop push of tides along the ocean's coastline. It brushes against us, pulling us to a new place, dislocating us temporarily until we can regain our balance. Who is there to care? Who will walk with us? What will we say to those who are grieving?

"Do not neglect to meet together," wrote the author of Hebrews. Surely he knew something about the nature of grief. In other words, just showing up is very important. The tendency is to pull away from others in our sadness, to want to be alone. While grieving is very individualized, and it is good to be alone, it is also value in being together. "Bear one another's burdens," wrote the apostle Paul, reminding us that we fulfill the laws of Christ, that we love each other most fully when we learn to share our burdens in community. This is what we can offer each other in the church: a place where grace can be shared, where God's love can be felt.

Henri Nouwen once wrote, "When I reflect on my own life, I realize that the moments of greatest comfort and consolation were moments when someone said, 'I cannot take your pain away, I cannot offer you a solution for your problem, but I can promise you that I won't leave you alone and will hold on to you as long and as well as I can. There is much grief and pain in our lives, but what a blessing it is when we do not have to live our grief and pain alone."

Be the church...together! May God's peace be with us all in this time of grief. -- Chris

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“Setting Aside Our Fears”
Pentecost & Confirmation Sunday
May 27, 2007
Romans 8:12-17
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Christopher W. Keating

Paul reminds us that opening ourselves to being led by God sets us free from fear, changing our future from death to life.

Maybe you saw the Newsweek essay a few weeks ago by Paula Spencer, a mother in North Carolina whose pre-teenage daughter’s friends were amazed that her pantry was filled with regular potato chips and not soy chips. “Apparently,” sighs Spencer, “I’m not nervous enough.”

We protect kids from everything but fear, says Spencer.

She goes on, citing ubiquitous canisters of hand sanitizer, worries about obesity, or maintaining grade point averages, kids who are “A” students getting summer tutors to stay on top of their classes, parents hover too closely near their teenage children, rearranging schedules out of fear their son or daughter won’t know anyone in their math class--even playgrounds retrofitted to decrease injuries and The fears mounted all summer, writes Spencer, climaxing in a series of phone calls from mothers worried about declining test scores in a school district that consistently produces more “A” students than any other in the state. Spencer thinks that perhaps the biggest thing we ought to fear is the effect this “collective paranoia” will have on our youth.

Of course, we could add to the list: fear of terrorism, global warming, retirement, fear of aging, fear of illness, fear of paying for college (we’re going to have two offerings next year). There is, apparently, a lot we ought to be worrying about…most of it rooted in the worry that we will somehow be out of control.

But today is Pentecost, and I feel a new wind blowing.

Today is Pentecost, and I believe God is coming to us…to release us from our fears, to set us free from anxiety, and to lead us in becoming God’s children. Today, the wind of God’s spirit blows around us, challenging us to let go of old assumptions, inviting us to dream new dreams, reminding us of our identity as God’s children. The wind of the Spirit beckons us, and the question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we willing to be led as God’s children in shedding our fears and accepting God’s power in our lives?”

It is, I believe, the same question believers have always been asked. The early believers were gathered that Pentecost morning expecting something to happen, but unsure of what. Pentecost, of course, is a Jewish festival, derived from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth.” Fifty days after Passover, the Jews celebrated the “feast of the harvest,” one of the most important feast days in the Jewish calendar. Fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Spirit came upon the apostles, gifting the church for its ministry, inviting them to dream new dreams, and reminding those gathered of God’s transformational power. “Suddenly,” writes Luke, “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, it filled the house where the disciples were sitting.” Power came upon each believer. Suddenly, the great diversity of people milling around Jerusalem that day were united in understanding each other’s language, reversing the curse of Babel. A new wind was blowing that day, inviting the church to be led by God in setting aside its fears and suspicions. That day, they were reminded that all God’s people are to be called children of the living God.

It must have been a startling, jarring experience. Their neatly ordered world collapsed in the presence of the Spirit. The surprising gift of God lifted them to new life, but also reminded them that they were not in control.

Yes, it is Pentecost, and we are out of control. And that, I believe, is good news.

It is good news because it shows us the truth: ultimately, we never were in control. We were pretending, the way children pretend to dress up in mommy’s shoes and jewelry. There’s only so long we can pretend to wear those high heels, and pretty soon we stumble around and fall down.

A new wind is blowing, and it is time to stop pretending we’re in control.

In one of his books, Michael Lindvall recalls seeing a New Yorker cartoon that caught his attention. Two wealthy “tycoon” types are standing on the lawn of an incredible estate. Swirling their cocktails, the two finely dressed men stare out toward the expansive sea…certainly the Hamptons…and then one says to the other, “You know, sometimes I wish someone else were captain of my fate and master of my soul.”[1]

The truth is this, says Lindvall, a Presbyterian minister: “Somebody else is.” Yes, A new wind is blowing around us today…it is the wind of God’s spirit reminding that we are not the center of the universe. The hot, holy breath of God blows into our lives, knocking us off balance, but also reminding us that we are not to fall back into a spirit of slavery, but a spirit of adoption. We are now God’s children. that God is at work in this world. The assurance, says Paul, is this: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to you…”

God’s love so fills our lives that it causes us to set aside those long laundry lists of fears that we make on those nights we cannot sleep. We live with the full assurance that we are truly not the masters of our destiny, the captains of our fate.

If we open ourselves, and are willing to be led.

“All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

To me, that is what makes confirmation so important. Confirmation is important because it signifies a young person’s desire to open themselves to God’s presence. It is not just about learning stuff about the Bible, the Book of Order, or the Book of Confessions. It is the reminder that we are part of God’s family, that we have a place in this church.

Each year, when the students come to meet with the Session, you can always see fear on their faces. You can sense they’re worried about what questions they’re going to be asked, and whether or not they’ll have the right answers. Last week, before we met with the students, someone came up to me. He looked worried and anxious. He said he was concerned about how the meeting was going to go, and he wasn’t sure he knew what to say. This wasn’t one of the kids, it was Keith Campbell, one of our elders. Hannah, Lizzie, Merrill, Alex – you have learned some facts about faith. But now comes the real test: how are you going to open yourself to God? How are you going to let yourself be led by God?

Let me start by teaching you one more lesson. Here is something you ought to memorize, to remember forever: 63X-XXX-XXXX. It’s the church’s phone number. You dial it, and we’ll answer. It is important to learn your church’s phone number, because it is the number you can call when something goes wrong.

Most of you know that my mother had a stroke last Sunday. On Monday, as we were making lists of people to call, I instinctively grabbed a phone and began dialing 909-5XX-XXXX. It’s the number of the La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church in La Verne, California…the church where my family attends, where mother is a member, where she was an elder, where my father was an elder, and where I was confirmed. It is the church that took me to camp each summer, it is the youth group that taught me how to play sardines, where I had my first crush; the church where I fell in love with Jesus, where I first was invited to share in the leadership of the church, where I first experienced my sense of call to ministry. It was there that I grew in faith and learned that I, too, am a child of God. In crisis, who are you going to call?

Be willing to be led by the Spirit of God. Open yourselves to that Spirit, and remember that you are children of God. Amen.
[1] Quoted in The Christian Life by Michael L. Lindvall, (Lousiville, KY: Geneva Press, 2001), p. 28

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Joy Ascending!

Where Is The Church Headed?

#3“The World’s Greatest Airshow!”
Ascension Sunday
May 20, 2007
Luke 24:44-53
Rev. Dr. Christopher W. Keating

Bruce Tacy, pictured at right, was a friend of mine who was a year ahead of me in seminary. Bruce had an infectious laugh and a friendly presence. Unfortunately for the church, Bruce died of a massive coronary last August in his early 50s. At the time of his death, he was the pastor of a church in suburban Washington, DC. While we were in seminary, we treasured Bruce’s compassion but also his off-beat sense of humor that helped unwind some of the more tightly woven-experiences of graduate theological study. Bruce had a different way of looking at things. For example, when it came time to take ordination exams, Bruce, like all of us, was nervous. He breezed through most of the exams without any problems, until he came to the theological competency examination, a four hour essay test offered on the second day of examinations. That year, the test asked a single question: “What is the importance of the doctrine of the ascension for the contemporary church’s ministry?”

Bruce was stumped. Like many of us, he recalled having discussed the doctrine in theology classes, but then there’s only so much one can recall on short notice. He thought a minute, chewed on his pencil and began to write his answer. Opening the exam booklet, Bruce began his answer with “Beam me up, Jesus!”

The good news for Bruce was the next time he took that test, there were no more questions about the ascension.

On Sundays when we say the Apostles’ Creed, I finish preaching and invite you to stand with me to say what we believe. Stretching your legs after their homiletical rest period, you straighten up, and begin to recite the words, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” Most of the words trip off your tongue without much thought, perhaps. But then you come to this part: “he ascended into heaven.” I wonder, how many of us have ever stopped at the point and thought, “What do we mean by ‘he ascended?’”

To some, it may seem like a grand air show. Scores of bystanders crowding around Jesus, shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun, staring at him as his feet leave the firm ground. Gape-mouthed, they watch as he is assumed into the clouds. Watching him disappear, they wave silently until they can see him no more, and then, politely applaud…as if this were nothing more than a feat of magic.

What is the significance of this doctrine for our ministry? Luke gives us not one, but two slightly descriptions of Jesus being lifted up out of the disciple’s sight. In both cases, these are hard stories to understand. It is hard to imagine a body rising from our sight, and our minds get bogged down by the laws of gravity and physics. But, as Fred Craddocks says, we shouldn’t linger with the laws of levitation.[1] Instead of trying to defy science, Luke offers us the invitation to deeper belief and faith by upholding a theological challenge to the church, and that is the ascension reminds us of the ongoing presence of Christ, and leads us to deep and unending joy.

Once, while watching a production of a “Passion Play” about the life of Jesus, Methodist pastor Rosemary Brown wondered how the actors would literally depict the Ascension. So she was on “pins and needles” with anticipation as the actor playing Christ leads the disciples out to Bethany and blessed them. Then, standing in the beam of a bright stage light, the action began to rise move backwards, slowly up the side of the hill where he disappears. With that, the light cuts out and the play is over.[2]

Yet, observes Brown, that is not how the story really ends. According to Luke, Jesus’ ascension doesn’t end the drama of the Gospel. Luke reminds us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem, where they worshipped God and were filled with joy.

The ascension of Christ shows just how quickly the disciples have moved from confusion about Jesus’ resurrection to confession and, now to holy, joyful communion with God and each other. This action is consistent with what has been happening throughout Luke’s Gospel. From the very beginning of the Gospel, writes one commentator, has been to see God acting to save, send, and bless God’s people. The joy of the angels, the joy of Mary, the Joy of the Father of the prodigal, all that joy comes into focus here at the end of the Gospel as the disciples are filled with the power and peace of Christ…he blesses them, commissions them, and sends them in God’s name. God’s people are saved. God’s people are sent. God’s people are blessed.

The experience of being blessed by God – being told that you are precious, loved, and affirmed in the deepest part of your being is what raises us this morning. The ascension, wrote John Calvin, “transfuses us” with the power of God, pulling us into the heart of God, reminding us that we are deeply loved by God. [3] The vision of God raising Jesus above the earth lifts us, as the song says, “but when you come and I am filled with wonder, sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.” So Luke tells us the disciples were clothed with power, filled with great joy, continually blessing God. If want to know where the church is headed, then I believe we ought to begin by letting our lives be filled with that sort of deep, wondrous joy.

I don’t mean silly, giddiness. I don’t mean rose-colored glasses that looks away from pain, injustice, and agony. The joy of faith reminds us that because Christ has ascended, we, too, are filled with the power of God…we have been lavished with the riches of God’s love. Such deep joy, I believe, comes from the reminder that the ascension is yet another sign of God’s grace.

Not long ago, a psychology professor in Atlanta assigned a class to identify a person you feared the most and to go and interview that person. The purpose was to see how stereotypes of people fall away when we befriend people we do not know, persons we have labeled as different as ourselves or persons with whom we have serious disagreements. To the shock of one devout Christian in the class, nearly 40% of the students in the class said the people they feared most are Christians.[4]

How widespread that fear actually is in our world, I do not know. But I know this: if Christians are feared, it is perhaps because our lives do not fully reflect the joy given to us in Christ. If this is true, then we need to remember that perfect love casts aside all fear. Such love comes to us from the God who raises us with Christ. Such love throws a party for a prodigal son who wasted the family fortune, and such love heals a woman suffering from a crippling illness, and such love brings peace to sinners like you and me. Such love, dear friends, is offered to us in grace of the ascension…and it should fill our lives with deepest joy. Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke, p. 294.
[2] “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing,” The Rev. Rosemary Brown,, May 12, 2002.
[3] Cf. “The Ascensions—a Promise of Great Things To come” by John S. McClure,
[4]Daniel B. Clendenin, “The last Sentence of the Bible: Grace to All”, May 20, 2007.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Listening for God

Sunday, May 13, 2007
“Where Is The Church Headed?”
#2 “Listening for God”

Acts 16:9-15
John 5:1-9

Swinging back and forth in an old porch swing with her daughter, writer Denise Roy observes that in that rather peaceful, squeaky movement back and forth, she and her daughter find a deep, lasting peace. “Here,” she writes, “we have room enough for life. We have a rhythm to our day. We have exactly enough time for what is truly important.”[1]

The ironic thing, says Denise, is that this swing is bolted to the fake front of a house in an museum exhibit titled “Step into the Past.” Denise says it doesn’t matter to her daughter that the yellow house they’re sitting in front of is just a façade, or that the porch isn’t real. What matters is that the mother sitting next to her is real.

You may remember Denise, she came to Woodlawn Chapel a few years ago and read from her first book, My Monastery is a Minivan. Caught in the web of modern life, she muses that it is hard to slow down in our personal lives and listen to what is truly important.

“I want to slow down, to sit and snuggle, to step fully into the present.”[2]

That seems to me to capture a yearning most of us have these days. We work long days. We are perpetually busy. We race home, only to step into the ongoing, chaos that awaits us there. We yearn to step fully into the present and to feel the presence of God around us. That is a yearning we can identify with whether or not we are parents, but I do think mothers especially long for the feeling of wholeness Denise Roy describes. Some years ago, I gave Carol a children’s book for Mother’s Day – it was called “Five Minute’s Peace.” The same year our neighbor gave her a t-shirt that said, “Mom’s Shirt,” and “Wipe nose on dotted line!” That fairly well captured our life then.

Where are we headed? As parents? As God’s people?

In these days leading up to Pentecost, the church spends its time listening to stories of the Spirit’s work in the world, recalling the words of Jesus from the gospel lesson today: “My Father is still working, and I also am working. (John 5:17) God is reminding us of the mission of the church in the world, and on this day the reminder is clear: settle yourselves into a porch swing, open your heart to God, and listen to what God is saying.

Yet that is far from a cut and dry process. Where do we go to open ourselves to God? Just how does that happen? Notice something. In these stories from Acts, is that God seems to be everywhere, appearing to people by way of ecstatic visions and wild dreams. One scholar observed that the word for vision is used twelve times in the entire New Testament; once in Matthew, and eleven times in the Book of Acts. The unfolding drama of the Gospel reveals its power…as women and men, mothers and fathers, children and servants open themselves to the transforming power of the presence of God.
The Spirit is touching lives, causing them to stop where they are to see God in their midst.

And that is a practice we ought to cultivate. If congregations are to remain vital, strong, centers of mission and faith, we need to lead people in the rather socially unacceptable practice of stopping. Yes, stopping – we need to regain a sense of the Sabbath. We need to learn new ways of discovering God’s presence in our lives—new ways of praying. Congregational consultant Herb Miller writes of a nightclub that opened directly across the street from the only church in a small town. Infuriated that someone would be bold enough to do this, the church organized an all-night prayer meeting. The church prayed that God burn the nightclub to the ground. Well, within a few minutes a thunder storm rolled over the town. Lightening struck the building and burned the club to the ground. The club owner filed a lawsuit against the church, which of course denied any responsibility.

As the judge heard the case, he closed the filed and turned to both parties and said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the tavern keeper is the one who really believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t!”[3]

If we wonder which direction the church is headed, perhaps we should follow Lydia’s lead and wander down to the river.

Luke doesn’t tell us if Lydia was a mother or not, but we do know she was a busy person, a businesswoman of some means, a woman with a mind for enterprise. She was a dealer in purple cloth, a woman well versed in the push and pull of the marketplace. She was successful, probably wealthy. Her life was filled with the noise of commerce, and yet today’s scripture tells us that this Gentile woman was fulfilling the Jewish Sabbath. She is converted by Paul’s preaching, and in many ways becomes a mother in the church.

And it all starts when she finds a quiet place by the river to pray.

The amazing thing is that Paul almost didn’t make it to that women’s prayer group. He had plans to go in a different direction, but we’re told that the Spirit of Jesus prevented him from taking the gospel into Asia, and instead directed him toward Greece. He is compelled to go in a different direction by a vision. That is significant. It comes to home suddenly, awakening him to new life. So instead of heading off into Asia, Paul lands in Philippi, and wanders outside of the city limits to a small place where some women had gathered to pray. It isn’t a remarkable building, it isn’t even an officially-sanctioned synagogue. It is, instead, a small gathering of women eagerly yearning for God.

At the river, these two visions coincide. The providence of God has lead Paul to preach to these women, and the Spirit of God moves in the life of a wealthy Gentile woman named Lydia. She who hungers for God, and Paul provides the meal. Look at the confluence of these two visions: the apostle is led by God, and the receptive heart that is also open to God’s leading.

Both are led to this out of the way place for no apparent reason. But then, as one has said, “God may not act exactly when we want God to act, but God is always on time.” Lydia hears the Gospel. She responds by opening her household, her resources, her very heart to the work of God. Both Lydia and Paul open their lives to God, and the results are amazing.

A few year’s ago on Mother’s Day, we wandered off the beaten path and spent an afternoon playing down at Castlewood State Park. We took off our shoes and splashed in the running water. Sinking my feet into river ooze doesn’t come naturally to me. I much prefer chlorinated blue water to muddy, green-brown river water. But I followed the vision. We splashed. We laughed. We collected pails of rocks and let little fish swim between our toes. But most of all, we opened ourselves to a spectacular vision of what our then-young family could become, in God’s grace.

Soon our lives will take a new turn. But the good news is this: when we trust in the vision that the Spirit of God provides, like it did to Paul, like it did to Lydia, it will open our hearts. It will change us forever. Amen.

[1] Denise Roy, Momfulness, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), p. 51.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Herb Miller, Connecting With God, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 68.