Saturday, May 31, 2008


Cowardice asks the question - is it safe?

Expediency asks the question - is it politic?

Vanity asks the question - is it popular?

But conscience asks the question - is it right?

And there comes a time when one must take a position

that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular

but one must take it because it is right."

--- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two years ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) affirmed a strong statement that called for investigation into the incidents of torture of detainees taken as part of the US war on terror. It also established this website, No 2 Torture, which is filled with resources on this issue. The people being tortured were in Abu Ghraib, and we all saw those pictures. These people were at Guantanamo-- a trial of an alleged 9/11 conspirator has recently been abandoned because the US prosecutors didn't want the mistreatment of the prisoner becoming an issue at trial. These people were also probably farmed out to countries that-- unlike the US-- don't have laws against these activities.

This is "Banners Across America" month. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is encouraging religious bodies to speak on this issue, and would like to see churches, synagogues, temples and mosques hang banners that say "Torture is Wrong." Does the gospel call us to witness against this? I believe the answer is, it does. The answer to most all objections can be found in the MLK quote above. Is it right? Of course it isn't. It isn't right for those who profes to be our enemies to do it, and it isn't right for us to do it.

This week I will be writing a sermon on this topic to preach to the church that has only known me for 9 months. Your prayers are appreciated.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Festival, Later

I want to say meaningful and profound things about the Festival of Homiletics. But I think I can't manage much more than some bullets. Here goes:

  • Tom Long: Dependably fabulous. Preached on John 4 (the Samaritan Woman at the Well); lectured on Mark.
  • Anna Carter Florence: Best preacher at the conference, if delivery alone would determine that. And I truly appreciated her words on Luke 10 (Martha and Mary).
  • Walter Brueggeman: Inspiring. Made me feel smarter just to be able to keep up with him.
  • Barbara Lundblad: The best workshop at the conference, on Matthew's texts through this summer, and "Preaching Through Resistance." And she taught me in seminary!
  • David Lose: Gave the most intellectually rigorous lecture of the conference, on preaching in the post-modern context. Now I actually understand what post-modernism is... but I can't possibly prove that you, because proofs and absolutes are so passé.
  • Walter Wangerin: Spellbinding. And good on his feet!
  • Carol Miles: After an initial misstep (claiming that women are challenged when it comes to having a sense of direction... helLO??), gave a really moving sermon.
  • Worship: Transcendent, mostly.
  • New friends: better than I could have imagined. Biblical hospitality lives!
That's all I can do. I can do no more. Except...

Little Mary, back me up on this. Was the snark factor, at moments, just a little over the top? NOT amongst our RevGalPals (they were, to a woman, delightful... and so were the men in that group). But... at other times. It felt like there was some serious self-doubt/ insecurity floating around, judging by the things that were said about various speakers and preachers. The whole thing was so overwhelmingly rich and beautiful to me, and I was so grateful for all I learned and just soaked in... and wished for a little more grace to be offered in the hearing.

Generally, the conference attendees were a wonderful congregation... the most "live" group I could ever imagine preaching to, right there with each passing syllable, reacting, responding, laughing, groaning. But later... meow. And I am guilty of this in life, I admit. But... it was a little disappointing, and started to wear on me.

That's all I got. Re-entry is challenging my ability to spell and form coherent thoughts. I know I've left stuff and people out. But this is it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I Wished

Narrator: Once upon a time--  

Cinderella: I wish...

Narrator: --in a far-off kingdom--

Cinderella: More than anything...

Narrator: --lived a young maiden--

Cinderella: More than life...

Narrator: --a sad young lad--

Cinderella: More than jewels...

Jack: I wish...

Narrator: --and a childless baker--

Jack: More than life...

Cinderella, Baker: I wish...

Narrator: --with his wife.

Jack: More than anything...

Cinderella, Baker, Jack: More than the moon...

Wife: I wish..

Cinderella: the King is giving a Festival.

Baker, Wife: More than life..

Jack: I wish..

I wish to go to the Festival--

Baker, Wife: More than riches..

Cinderella: --and the Ball..

Jack: I wish my cow would give us some milk.

Cinderella, Wife: More than anything..

Baker: I wish we had a child.

Jack (to cow): Please, pal--

Wife: I want a child..

Jack: Squeeze, pal..

I wish to go to the Festival.

And... I am off to the Festival of Homies (Homiletics)!
See you on the flip side...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Divine Dance: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

“The Divine Dance”
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
May 18, 2005, Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, which bears the distinction of being the only Sunday in the church year which celebrates, not an event, but a point of theology: the Trinity. It has been said that on Trinity Sunday, it is a custom for the aged pastor of the church to send the green young associate into the pulpit to try to explain this mysterious doctrine. Then, while the young preacher is doing his or her very best, the old hand sits quietly making notes—ticking off heresies as they are spoken, one by one. We don’t spend a lot of time arguing or even thinking about these points—I for one forgot every heresy I learned in seminary as soon as the test was over. I think I took Martin Luther’s words to heart. He said: “To deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.” Still, there were times in the church’s history when blood was spilled over matters such as the nature of the Triune God. Every once in a while it does us good to flex these unused muscles, to try once more to grapple with the question: what is the Trinity? And why does this understanding of God make a difference in our lives as Christians?

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” This is Paul’s farewell blessing to the people of church in Corinth at the end of his second letter to them. Stated like this, it sounds as if he is talking about three different persons in God. The early church councils used this very term—they stated that three persons of the Trinity existed in the One who was still, somehow, one God.

That word, “persons,” comes from the Greek word “persona,” and means “mask”—as if each person of the Trinity were somehow a mask God wears. This idea is helpful, to a point. We—faithful people throughout history—have had different experiences of God we have somehow boiled down to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The people of the Hebrew Scriptures had an experience of God we may like to think of as God the Father or God the Creator. In Jesus Christ the disciples and those who followed them had an experience that, following on Jesus’ own description of his relationship with God, we have come to think of as God the Son or God the Christ. And those gathered in the upper room had an experience of what we have come to think of as God the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate, the one who is still powerfully with us in the church. One God has been made manifest in many experiences. But here’s the problem with the “mask” imagery: the doctrine of the Trinity is not saying that there is one God who wears a bunch of different disguises, like some sort of divine CIA operative. There is something wholly Father of God the Father, that is not the same as God the Christ.

It’s typical to try to explain the Trinity to children using an object lesson: the Trinity is like a three-leaf clover, or an apple, or an egg. So each person is like one of the leaves, or the core, flesh and skin, or the shell, yolk and white. But that leaves us short. God is each leaf and all the leaves simultaneously, shell, yolk and white all at once.

Along these same lines, it has come to be popular in recent years to express the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,” in an effort to avoid using all male pronouns for God. And I really love and appreciate the thought behind that effort. Only—it’s not accurate. We believe that the fullness of God was and is present in creation. Look at the very first verses of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness… Gen. 1:1-3

We read here that God created the heavens and the earth. God, Creator, Father, first person of the Trinity. We read that a “wind from God swept over the waters…” In Hebrew the word for “wind” and “spirit” is one and the same: ruach. The Spirit of God, the Ruach of God, Holy Spirit, was hovering over the waters at the creation. And how does God create? God speaks: the Word, the Logos, the second person in the Trinity. The opening to the gospel of John deliberately echoes the beginning of Genesis to make just this point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [John 1:1] When we Christians look at this passage, we see the Trinity. We believe that all of God was present in Creation, and that all of God is still present in Creation.

We also believe that all of God was present in the act of redemption through Jesus Christ, and that the completeness of God is somehow present in the Holy Spirit’s action in sustaining us, corporately in the church as well as individually. So God the Father is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer; God the Son is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and God the Holy Spirit is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We can’t divide God up functionally.

So we have established some things the Trinity is not. The Trinity is not God in different masks. And the Trinity is not God divided up into separate functions. Nor is it God divided up anatomically or spatially. Where do we go from here? Wiser heads than mine have suggested that, rather than focus on “ontology”—the “what is it?” question—that we should focus on relationship—the “how is it?” question. The best we can do is to hold up our understanding of the Trinity as a parable, as something that tells the truth but still leaves us to fill in the blanks. The Trinity is three persons in one God. But what does that mean? The parable of the trinity is really an attempt to explain that God is, even in God’s completely sovereign and majestic self, relational. God is not static. God is complete in God’s self, but God wants to be in relationship. Here is how one writer explains it:

God is communitarian… From all time God was several, a society of persons who know and love each other so well that They’re infinitely transparent and united. They had to be several to be God; They had to be together to be Themselves; They had to be sundry to be love.[1]

Here is how Saint John of the Cross explained it: God is the One who loves so completely that there must be a co-equal lover to God to receive that love; and the love between the two is so dynamic and powerful that it is the third person. God is Lover, Beloved and Love.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has an image of the Trinity that may be helpful. Theologians beginning with John of Damascus have depicted the Trinity as three persons engaged in a circle dance. If the very nature of God, the Trinity, is relationship, this image shows it to be an utterly joyous and interdependent relationship. As one theologian has written, “Father, Son, and Spirit join hands and spin and spin and spin, all equal partners in the dance. Some have spoken of the very act of creation as the result of the love of this dance spilling over to make a world, or of the dancers spreading out to make room in their circle for more.”[2] This same theologian shared the following hymn as an illustration:

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun--
the interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

Here’s what I know about God: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the Spirit of God swept over the waters. And God spoke—God said the Word—and creation came into being. From the beginning, whether it was made explicit in the text or not, the God who is, at core, community, created all that is, a great and diverse living community of creatures upon the earth. And then God made human beings, earth-creatures, in the divine image. God, who is wholly about relationship, made us to be in relationship with one another as well as with God. God, who is love and relationship through and through, made us to love and be in relationship as well. God, who in the divine essence is a joyful, loving dance, invites us into the dance as well.

In speaking of the Trinity, there always comes a point when words fail us. Supposedly Saint Augustine was walking along the beach one day, puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity, when he came across a little child who was running back and forth with a bucket, pouring water from the ocean into a hole he had dug in the sand. (I myself remember spending hours of summer days engaged in exactly this activity.) Augustine asked the boy, "What are you doing?" The boy replied, "I'm trying to put the ocean into this hole." Augustine abruptly realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind. So let’s allow the rest of our reflection this morning to be in that place beyond words, imagining that joyful dance and our part in it, in gratitude to the God who invites us into the divine dance with one another. Amen.

[1] Louis Evely, That Man is You.
[2] Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, Sermon on Trinity Sunday, May 2007.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Viral Storytelling

I have been infected with the Splotchy virus by (0)(0). I have no idea whatsoever what's going on. But I love a good story, so.....


I had been shuffling around the house for a few hours and already felt tired. The doorbell rang. I opened the front door and saw a figure striding away from the house, quickly and purposefully. I looked down and saw a bulky envelope. I picked it up. The handwriting was smudged and cramped, and I could only make out a few words."(Splotchy)

Despite the throbbing pain in my knees and the dull ache in my lower back, I bent down slowly and picked up the envelope...
Oh no. It did not say this, did it?
Oh yes, it did. It did.
The handwriting was familiar in a way that inspired a cold sweat and a bout of nausea. It was the penmanship of my former husband. You know - the one that was presumed dead.
He disappeared in a suspicious blogging related accident a number of years ago and was never heard from again. I was devastated. I had hated the blog, loathed the thing. What began as a hobby that took but a few minutes a day had morphed into an addiction, the proportions of which could not be measured. It was pure evil.
The blog turned into a cruel and demanding mistress and her siren song was more than I could compete with. One day he left for an evening event, never to return again.
All fingers pointed to one blogger, but I could never get the charges to stick. That one is slick- slick, slick, slick. He can talk a good game and write like nobody's business. But there is something about him, it just is not right.
So my husband was gone, that other one kept blogging and I had to rebuild my life, which I did.
So I finally had the bastard declared dead.
And now this. (FranIam)

Suddenly the phone rang, and I felt like I was ten inches tall and eerie music was playing in the background. I went to pick up the phone and the music stopped.
Dial tone, no one was there. I glanced back to the door, and there he was. He rushed me and rose his hand and...

Suddenly the phone rang and I just had that "black cat, Friday the 13th" kind of feeling. I looked out into the world. No one, no one was about. I closed and locked the door and went to answer the phone.
Dial tone, no one was there. I glanced back at the door and it was locked.

I directed my attention to the envelope, abruptly, I heard a knock at the door.(Wyldth1ng)

I waited, rooted to the spot. There was another knock. Still I stood waiting. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. The knock became louder, more insistent.

Suddenly, the room was flooded with bright light. My eyes flew open and I was staring again at the speckled, drop ceiling tiles above me.

"Wakey, wakey," came the sing-song voice of the morning shift nurse Maryann. Shit. When would I ever stop having that dream? And what was I doing in bed with Suzanne Pleshette? (0)(0)

I craned my neck to the right and looked at her. Damn, the woman had aged well. She spoke, in that luscious, whiskey-soaked voice I remembered so vividly.

"You were dreaming again, doll." Cigarette smoke curled out her nose, clouded her green eyes for the tiniest moment. As I looked at her Maryann was busily strapping a blood pressure cuff to my right arm, carefully avoiding the IV tubes on the left. It was the IV tubes, finally that did it, that made me remember taking off in the Cessna, ditching in the swamp, and waking to find him-- the bastard-- hovering by my bedside, waiting for me to kick, waiting to cash in.

Of course, there he was. His back to the door, those gray eyes oozing false concern. I felt a sickness sweep over me. Where was the phone? Where were the cops? Where was the plot continuity? (Magdalene).

I tag:

Little Mary

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No, Sort Of

Thanks so much for your prayers... you are wonderful. Our meeting ended without the session taking the action I requested. As I suspected it might. I was asking them to take a stretch, to do something bold in the community that could easily be viewed as political. It became clear during our conversation (about a half hour in length) that they were very divided on the issue, right down the middle. I encouraged them to speak their opinion without 'talking back' to one another; I had to restrain myself from doing that when someone on the 'other side' made a couple of statements that were pretty outlandish and mischaracterizing 'my side.'

At the end, I told them it was a wonderful discussion (it was) and that I was proud to work with them, and that it was important for us to be able to disagree without fearing that our relationships would be damaged. I then withdrew the proposal. I explained that even if it had passed by one vote, I would not have been comfortable going forward when they did not have a strong consensus. I don't know whether the folks who agreed with me were disappointed, but I'll find that out before too long, I expect.

This is such an important moment in our lives together. This church has been torn apart by factions in the past, people staking out their positions and demonizing those on the other side. I hope that everyone who left that meeting last night felt empowered to have been able to speak out and be heard with respect. I hope this can be a blueprint for other decisions to come.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Grand Opportunity

A first tonight, gentle readers. I am going to the session of New Church with a proposal they are going to dislike, which is going to make them uncomfortable, which some will reject as political, and which they will most likely vote down.

I see this as a grand opportunity.

If they say "no" (and I am fully prepared for them to do so) I want to affirm them in the office to which they have been called. I want to say, "This is your area of expertise, and this is your right and obligation, to decide as the Spirit moves you." I also want to say, "We can disagree without being disagreeable. This is what happens in community. Let's handle it well!"

If they say "yes" (highly unlikely, given early comments on the proposal which I sent around via email to give them the 'heads up') I want to be sure they're not doing something they don't really want to do simply because they like me, and don't want to hurt my feelings.

Prayers appreciated! 7 PM, EST.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Promises Fulfilled: A Confirmation/ Pentecost Sermon

“Promises Fulfilled”
Acts 2:1-14, 17
May 11, 2008: Pentecost Sunday

A long time ago… M. and A., longer than you can remember…12 years ago? Thirteen? …your parents stood in front of a church, before a minister and a congregation, and asked that you be baptized. Before you had any say in the matter, before you could express an opinion in any other way than, maybe, letting out a squeal or a cry, a minister asked your parents this question: “Will you be responsible for nurturing this child you present in the faith and life of the Christian community?” And they answered, Yes. Yes, we will. With the help of God, we will. Then, the minister, whoever that was, turned to the congregation, and asked them this question: “People of God, do you promise, through prayer and example, to support and encourage A., M. to be faithful Christians?” And the people of God, answering not just for themselves, but for all God’s people throughout all God’s church, said “Yes. We do. We promise.”

And here you are. Here you are on this day on which we are speaking about fires appearing on people’s heads, and about winds blowing people out of the rooms they might prefer to sit in, surfing the net or texting their friends. Here you sit on this day on which the bible reminds us that our call as Christians is to get up, and go out, and speak out God’s good news. And now it’s your turn! Today, here you stand, ready to fulfill promises made for you and about you. Nobody asked your opinion until now. Now, you get to speak out. Today is the day of your Confirmation.

It might be good, first of all, to speak of what Confirmation is not. Confirmation in the church is not a day on which you proclaim that you have all the answers. Confirmation is not a day on which you say, “Well, I’m done. I’ve got that all figured out. On to calculus.” Confirmation, if anything, is a day that marks the beginning of your serious engagement with the really big questions. Today is a day to lay claim to the whole of our Christian heritage… to know that it’s yours, and then to say, “Where am I in all this?”

I remember the day of my confirmation so clearly. It was in a different era, and a different church, of course. I was one of about a hundred seventh graders, all being confirmed at once. But there are some things my confirmation had in common with yours. I had a mentor, someone I really admired and respected, standing behind me, my mom’s best friend Cecily. Also, I was just a little bit nervous.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the friends and family of Jesus are gathered in an upper room, waiting for the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised them: “You will receive power when my Holy Spirit has come upon you.” And I’m guessing they didn’t know what that would be like. They had no idea what “the power of the Holy Spirit” meant. So they waited together, praying and wondering. I am willing to bet they were more than a little bit nervous. What would the power of the Holy Spirit mean in their lives? I imagine no one was ready for what happened next. No one was ready for the fiery, windy, wild ride that the Holy Spirit would send them on.

Here are just some of the things the power of the Holy Spirit meant for the followers of Jesus:

~ They were able to speak about their faith with boldness and confidence, and share with others what they had seen and experienced, the good news of Jesus Christ.
~ They were able to bring healing to people who were hurting.
~ They were able to work out disagreements by remembering the things Jesus had taught them, and knowing that their love for one another would get them through.

Those are just a few of the things that happened for Jesus’ followers, after the church was born, in the days, weeks, months and years after Pentecost. What do you imagine will happen to you, as the power of the Holy Spirit continues to be revealed in your lives? Do you think you might learn ways of sharing your faith with others? Do you think you might be able to create moments of healing when people are hurting? Do you think you might have a new kind of blueprint for walking through times of disagreement together?

A. and M. have shared with me some of their hopes for Our Church, and I have to say, they are exciting. They want to form a Drama Club. The proceeds from their performances would go to help people in need. They want to spend more time laughing with their Church friends—they loved Game Show Night. They suggested a Movie Night. They think the Youth Group ought to go caroling… not just at Christmas time, but at other times of the year, too, visiting our homebound members and those in nursing homes and singing them hymns and other songs to cheer them up. They want to bring them flowers. I can’t wait for us to get started on M. and A.'s plans for life here at Our Church. As delighted as I am by their plans and ideas, I cannot say that I am surprised. These things are just promises fulfilled, the promise of young people raised to know that God is good, that God loves us, that following Jesus has something to do with the love of God, and that following Jesus means reaching out to those who are hurting.

A long time ago, longer than any of us can remember… before the very beginning of time…God stood at the threshold of creation and made some plans. Those plans included Jesus Christ and the church. Those plans included the A. family and the M. family, and these specific, spectacular collections of cells and talents and inspiration we know as A. and M. God stood at the threshold of creation, and said, “I promise. I promise to love these young people, and to provide for them a community where they can learn to love me. I promise to claim them in the waters of baptism, and to never let them go. I promise to give them questioning, inquisitive minds, and challenging, loving hearts. And God answered Godself, and said, Yes. Yes, I will. By the power of my love, I will.” A., M., you were claimed before the beginning for the love of God and the faith of the church. Today you step forward and claim that faith for yourselves. Today you step forward, and affirm that you have received that love. Today, you join the ranks of the people who get fired up and blown around by the Holy Spirit, to accomplish only God knows what. Welcome. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: "Pentecost" by Linda Schmidt, Textile Artist, Quilter, Designer.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Tomorrow New Church will confirm a small class of two young women.

I love confirmation. I love rites of passage, in which we recognize that, people grow and they become more than they were before. This is one of those rites, when young people get to confirm the promises that were made for and about them years before (now I'm quoting my own homily).

This confirmation comes at the end of a week that has been wonderfully exhilarating for me. I am privileged to be able to participate in an annual conference for folks who are in the first three years in ministry. (I'm a group facilitator; my group started last year as 1st year ministers; next year will be their third and last in the program.) It is so, so, so exciting to me to be with other people who are in ministry, people who take seriously this odd business of preaching the gospel and being in leadership for faith communities.

It's no bed of roses, for anyone. I heard and shared some hard stories this week. But being with these folks gives me such hope-- not just for the church as a whole, but for my own ministry. It provides a kind of confirmation for me, a moment in which I can say with them, Yes. I love this work. I am called to it. I am so happy to do it. I am so privileged to be a part of it.

What can I say? God is good.

Monday, May 05, 2008

From John: A Play by Claire Buckingham

You are in a studio theater, on Broadway in the village. The room is approximately 30 by 60 feet, walls painted black. There are chairs lining the walls. When you enter the room, people are taking their seats. After a bit, the lights dim. Then you hear a crash. After a moment, a slim beam of light comes on, and you realize that the crash was a chair being kicked over. In that moment you see a young man, his neck at an unnatural angle, twisting slightly. He is John, and he has just hanged himself.

After a moment, he straightens up, and, for the rest of the play, his ghost hovers silently nearby as the other three characters.... Edna (the fiancée he left behind), Alva (the kind farmer and WWII veteran she meets and eventually marries), and Lauren (Edna and Alva's teenaged granddaughter)... interact. The story moves back and forth between Edna and Alva's life as young people and her life as an elderly widow, when her granddaughter discovers the story of John, the dead fiancé whose memory haunted her marriage.

The play was written and directed by Claire Buckingham, a senior at Big City U. There was not one moment of the play that I did not believe. It was as emotionally honest and pure a piece of art as I have ever witnessed, beautiful and poignant storytelling, funny and devastating all at once. My son played Alva, the man who marries the haunted young woman. It was, to me, the most beautiful, transparent and vulnerable piece of acting I have seen him do. His first scene, when he is meeting the young, grieving schoolteacher Edna, made me weep.

The entire experience was so extraordinary, I almost can't describe it. But it was one of my proudest moments as a mother of a young person who is trying to live for his art.

And do keep an eye out for Claire Buckingham. If this is an example of what she is capable of doing as a college student... wow. Look out.

Cloud Rider: a Sermon on Acts 1:1-14

“Cloud Rider”
Acts 1:1-14
May 4, 2008
7th Sunday of Easter

Could be!

Who knows?
There's something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something's coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something's coming, I don't know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!

Can’t you just feel it? The suspense so thick you could cut it with a knife? At the end of our reading from Acts we find eleven apostles—and of course, eleven is the wrong number for apostles, as you may know. It’s a number-in-waiting, a number wanting. These insufficient apostles, plus an undisclosed number of women, are gathered in a room waiting for something, and, you just know, it’s ‘gonna be great.’ They are waiting for a promise to be fulfilled, the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus. They are fearful, anxious, hiding in a second-storey room, waiting, hoping, for the gift of God’s power.

At last, the reading we have for today actually matches the timeline of the church year. On Thursday we marked forty days from Easter, our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. And on that fortieth day, it is the tradition of the church to lift up this story, unique in the New Testament, the story of Jesus being lifted up to heaven in a cloud.

There is something so strange, so odd about this passage. In a collection of gospels and letters where little girls and grown men are raised from the dead, where lepers are made suddenly clean, where a stormy sea is made still with the utterance of a few words, where demons are driven out of people and into herds of wild pigs… this is still a weird story, this story of Jesus the Cloud Rider. On the fortieth day after the resurrection, Luke tells us, Jesus and his disciples are standing on the side of a mountain together, and he makes them this promise: “… 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.” [Acts 1:8]

And then, while they are still talking to him, he is lifted up, and a cloud takes him from their sight and into the sky, into heaven. Only Luke tells this story, here and in the gospel bearing his name. And the story has the feeling of a kind of strange folk tale. But there are precedents for this sort of thing in the ancient world, and in our religious tradition.

In 2 Kings, the prophet Elijah is taken bodily out of sight and into heaven in a fiery chariot, apparently the most appropriate send-off for a man who stared down kings and queens and prophets who had strayed from the one true God. In later Jewish writings, Moses also departs this earth by ascending bodily into heaven, even as he continues to teach and preach to the people. But the most likely reference here, the layer of Jewish tradition we are supposed to hear, is the story of the strange, enigmatic figure of the Son of Man from the book of Daniel.

Daniel is a prophet from the period of the Babylonian exile. The first half of the book bearing his name shows Daniel to be faithful to the God of Israel, even as his life is threatened for not worshiping the king of Babylon. The second half of the book is given over to apocalyptic visions. The passage I’m going to read comes from the first vision:

As I watched… I saw one like a [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. ~ Daniel 7:13-14

The eerie spectacle of Jesus riding on a cloud evokes the promised return of “one like a son of man,” and the two white-robed men who ask the disciples, “Why are you looking up?” confirm that understanding by promising, yes, this is how Jesus will return. The cloudy departure of Jesus evokes all these same qualities… dominion, glory, a kingship that shall never be destroyed. The disciples’ response is to get ready. They retreat to the upper room to pray. And wait.

Strange as this story is to us, the idea of a man coming or going in clouds was not unheard of in the ancient world. The idea of God’s presence in a cloud was a familiar and compelling one to those steeped in scripture, reminiscent of the forty-year sojourn of the Hebrews in the wilderness. As they wandered, God went before the people in a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day [Exodus 13:21]. The cloud becomes a paradoxical thing that somehow both reveals and conceals the presence of God… Jesus goes, the Son of Man comes, all on a cloud.

It’s a powerful image; God acting in history, even interacting with human beings… but in or behind a cloud. It’s a wonderful image to relate to our own experience of God. We believe God is active, involved in human affairs, even our own little lives. But we don’t often have a clear sense of when that is happening, or how. It’s often cloudy to us.

Sometimes it feels as if we can say, “God did that!” when a good thing happens. (I have one friend who gives the Holy Spirit credit for good parking spaces; I don’t think I’m prepared to defend the theology behind that!) But what about those other times, times when, instead of coming together, things, our lives, our bodies, even, are falling apart? Sometimes we can’t see God’s hand in things. God operates behind a cloud… still present, still powerful, but somehow obscure to us.

In our Confirmation class a couple of weeks ago we read that story I shared during the children’s message. Remember how it went…

Many, many years ago there lived a faithful man named Jacob. He had twelve sons.
[Oh! That’s good!]
No, that’s bad, because he favored one son in particular—Joseph, and that made his other sons jealous of Joseph.
[Ooh! That’s bad!]
No, that’s good, because Joseph was a young man who was more concerned with God and with understanding God’s plans for him than with his brothers’ bad feelings.
[Oh! That’s good!]...

It’s hard to tell, sometimes, what exactly the hand of God is doing in our lives. When something painful or frightening happens… a bad diagnosis, the loss of a job or a relationship, an untimely death… we are not so eager to ascribe these things to the hand of God. Or, if we do, it’s to ask God, Why? Why me? What have I done to deserve this? God is present to us, but God is also hidden from our vision, deep in that cloud.

Like the characters in the story of Jacob and his sons, we’re always ready to ascribe value to the things that happen—“this is good, that is bad.” We are always, in some sense, waiting for God’s next word to us. Here’s the good news: that word is always, in the end, a word of healing, salvation and redemption, even if it’s not readily apparent to us. This is a fine Reformed notion known as the Providence of God. Our Presbyterian Study Catechism has this to say about God’s providence:

God not only preserves the world, but continually rules over it. God cares for every creature and brings good out of evil, so that nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not finally bend to the good. ~ Question 22

Nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not finally bend to the good. This is a powerful tool for anyone’s faith toolkit. God does not set about testing or torturing us. God is a God of joy and power, who wants our healing and joy and empowerment. Whenever we baptize babies or receive new members, we invoke that healing, joy and empowerment by the Holy Spirit with this prayer:

O Lord, uphold this person by your Holy Spirit. Daily increase in him your gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.

Trusting in the God who comes and goes in a cloud means that we are ready and waiting for the Spirit’s gifts. Trusting our Lord who is both revealed to us and concealed from us means that we are willing to suspend judgment on the events of our lives, good or bad or indifferent, because the one who lights our way has not finished speaking to us, or dealing graciously with us. Trusting the Holy Spirit means being ready to be sent, wherever that Spirit leads us… even to the ends of the earth. Could be! Who knows? There's something due any day. We will know right away, soon as it shows. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, May 02, 2008

They Say the Neon Lights are Bright....

That's right. Guess where Larry-O is going to be in a play this weekend? On Broadway!

OK. Calm down. The student production he will be in is in a second floor space at 7-hundred-something Broadway. That's the address. It's not the, you know, theater.

But still! Petra and I climb aboard a bus early-early tomorrow morning to make the trip to see the boy, and we are most excited. It's a new play called "From John," four characters, and experimental in nature. Just couldn't be happier about it...