Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

black-santa

Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

Christians and Coffee Cups

It’s early November and already this year’s installment of the so-called “War on Christmas” has begun. All over social media I’m seeing rants from angry Christians who are trying to “Keep Christ in Christmas”. And the first volley of shots has already been launched against an unlikely target: Starbucks.

Apparently people are mad that the seasonal cups at Starbucks this year are just plain red. No mention of Christmas or Jesus at all. And, clearly that means that Christians are being persecuted. I mean, my faith is just destroyed if I don’t get my venti blonde roast with room for milk in a cup that features the name of my Lord and Savior.

So, obviously I think this is a little ridiculous. Because, Christians, I promise you that Starbucks red cups are not going to destroy the Christian faith. Seriously, the Roman Empire couldn’t do it, and they could kill you with lions. And I don’t think Starbucks has the death penalty. Yet.

IMG_5531But it’s even more ridiculous to me because of the timing this year. I’m kind of baffled because it’s early November. And it seems to me that people of faith, people who should be keenly aware of the grace God has given us, should be focused on the holiday that is coming up in just a few weeks: the one where we say “thank you, God”.

When Christians start to lose sight of gratitude and instead develop a major persecution complex then we have a huge faith crisis on our hands that is far bigger than whether the red cups at Starbucks make any reference to Jesus.

This year we didn’t even wait until Advent to start claiming persecution. We are joining the rest of the world in skipping right over Thanksgiving, and we are joining the Christmas rush. We are spoiling for a fight and those red cups are just the thing to give it to us.

We’re kind of like the religious equivalent of those Black Friday shoppers who trample other Black Friday shoppers in order to get a good deal on a flat screen TV. We are so incensed by any perceived omission of our personal faith from the public sphere that we go on a rampage. Except instead of other shoppers, we just trample things like inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, and pluralism instead.

And you don’t get a TV in the end either. In fact, now you can’t even get a latte. (Not if you are boycotting Starbucks, anyway.) Really, all you get is the smug satisfaction of knowing that you are part of a dominant faith that can try to impose its religion on coffee drinkers everywhere.

This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbors as yourself,” right?

But maybe, for at least some of us who are Christians, there’s another way. One where we don’t overlook the celebration of gratitude that comes later this month. And one that doesn’t overshadow the season of Advent, a time when Christians are asked to prepare their hearts that Christ may be born in the anew. One where we are asked to focus on hope, peace, joy, and love.

In a world where so much pain exists, that is hard to do. And that is even harder when we focus our energy in the wrong places. If we are outraged, we should be outraged at a world where violence is rampant, where children still starve, where people are displaced from their homes, and where veterans are homeless on the streets. We should be taking Jesus’ command to love every child of God seriously. And we should stop wasting our time complaining about coffee cups that don’t acknowledge his birthday.

Because, seriously, do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?

Maybe this is the year that we can shift our priorities away from what doesn’t matter to what matters more than we know. Maybe this year we can set our sights a little higher than changing red cups, and instead try to change the world. And maybe this year we can stop yelling at others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” and instead focus on being Christlike ourselves.

So, here’s a suggestion of how to start: buy someone a coffee. In one of those red cups. Seriously, you will not go to hell for going to Starbucks this Christmas. But if you look closely enough, you just might find Jesus in the guy behind you in line. Because Christ is already at Starbucks, just as Christ is everywhere.

I don’t need his name on a paper cup to tell me that.

Note: did you like this blog post? Then you’ll probably love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. It’s out now from Pilgrim Press and available here: https://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

An Open Letter to Sunnie Kahle (and Christian tomboys everywhere)

Dear Sunnie,

You don’t know me, but this morning I read an article about you. (You can read it here: http://www.abc27.com/story/25061872/little-girl-taken-out-of-christian-school-after-told-shes-too-much-like-a-boy  ) Ever since then you keep crossing my mind. As I went around town today in my jeans and button-down shirt and sweater, I thought about you. As I came home from the gym tonight, I prayed for you. And all the while, I wished I could write you a letter…the kind of letter I wish someone had written to me.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

This is me when I was a few years younger than you.

I don’t know how to get one to you, though. I thought about trying to send it to your grandparents for them to read to you, but I’m not sure if it would make it there. So instead I’m writing this and posting it on my blog. Maybe somehow these words will find their way to your grandparents and they will share them with you. Or, maybe years from now you’ll find them online, and know that a lot of people were thinking about you today.

I read this morning that Timberlake Christian School, your school, has asked you to leave. The reason why, they say, is that you are not following “Biblical standards”. They say that you should be wearing dresses, and letting your hair grow out, and acting more “like a girl”. And they are saying that unless you do those things, you can’t go to your school anymore.

You are eight years old, and this probably sounds pretty silly to you. Don’t worry; I’m 37 years old and it sounds pretty silly to me too.

I’ll bet that I was a lot like you when I was eight years old. I didn’t like dresses. I liked playing football and collecting baseball cards. My favorite things were airplanes and science kits. And I liked cutting my hair short.

A lot of people called me a tomboy. I think they meant that as an insult, but I actually thought that was pretty neat. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you don’t. Which is okay, because if you don’t you can call yourself whatever you want. You get that choice, just like you get to choose what kind of clothes you wear, and what hobbies you like.

But here’s what bothers me most of all, Sunnie. These people who are saying you can’t go back to school with your friends are telling you that Jesus is the reason. Like you I was raised in the South. I spent the first part of my life in Virginia, just like you. And my parents always taught me to respect adults. But I was lucky because my parents also would tell me that sometimes adults are wrong.

Sunnie, the adults that told you that Jesus doesn’t like the way you dress, or that Jesus wants you to act “more like a girl”? They’re wrong.

Jesus does love you, Sunnie. You know how I know? Because Jesus loves me too. And Jesus loves everyone like us, who grows up preferring shorts to skirts, and jeans to dresses. Jesus loves us when we cut our hair short. Jesus loves us when we out hit the boys in baseball. And Jesus loves us when we don’t want to wear a pink bow in our hair.

The pastors at your school may disagree. That’s okay. Tell them that there are pastors out there who think that they are wrong about Jesus. I’m one of those pastors. And if you came to my church, or the churches of a lot of my friends, no one would say a word about what you were wearing or what your hair looked like. (Actually, we might…we might tell you we like your sneakers or your t-shirt…but that’s it.)

Sunnie, I don’t know who you’ll grow up to be in ten years. I don’t know who you will love, or what you will be like then. And that stuff doesn’t matter right now. Know why? Because you’re eight, and you have plenty of time to figure it out on your own time. No one else gets to do that for you.

So, Sunnie. I hope you keep being you. I hope your grandparents keep being incredible. And I hope your friends’ parents tell them that you had to leave school not because you did anything wrong, but because the school did something wrong.

But most of all, Sunnie, I hope you know that God loves you. God loves you so much, and God loves you exactly as you are now, and exactly as you will be. Never doubt that, no matter what people say or do to you. Just like they don’t get to tell you how to dress, they don’t get to take Jesus away from you either.

Keep being awesome, Sunnie.

Pastor Emily C. Heath

 

Update 3/26/14: Within about two hours of this blog post’s publication it found its way to Sunnie’s family and it was read to Sunnie. To those who made that happen, thank you.

Additionally, a number of people have commented or emailed saying the “true story” hasn’t come out. There have been both insinuations and outright assertions about Sunnie and Sunnie’s gender identity. Of course no evidence that their assertions are true has been presented. But, even if it were, here’s my question: Why does it matter?

If Sunnie, or any child for that matter, is trying to figure out who they are, why wouldn’t Christians want to support them? I think people have expected me to say, “Oh…well in that case…throw Sunnie out!” Really all I can say is clearly that school, a school that could not support Sunnie the way Sunnie needed to be supported, does not deserve to get to claim someone as brave as Sunnie as a student.

I believe Jesus said, “suffer the little children to come onto me” and not “suffer the little children to come onto me…but only if they are gender conforming”. I think a school that truly sought to follow him would do the same. But, that’s just my opinion. And, really, this has always just been about supporting Sunnie.

Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

Journey Through Advent – Day 16

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

We call Jesus the “Prince of Peace”. It’s there in our Christmas carols. It’s there in our church services. It’s even right there on our Christmas cards. We know who Christ is, and this time of year we repeat that phrase again and again. This year especially. After Newtown, we need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We pray, we sing, we call out to Christ asking for that peace right now.

But calling out means nothing if we are not ourselves peaceful people. Because if we call ourselves Christians, if we want to claim that Christ is the Prince of Peace, then we cannot remain silent in a culture of violence.
I know a lot of responsible gun owners. I live in a community with many hunters who practice gun safety. I have friends who have handguns and go to shooting ranges. And, while I personally don’t want any guns, I’m not judging them here.
But no one needs an assault rifle. No civilian needs something that was created for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. These guns were constructed for one reason and one reason only: to destroy human life.
Spare me the arguments about what will happen if only criminals, and not law abiding citizens, have assault rifles. Spare me your stories of what a good shot you are, and how you could have stopped this. Spare me your explanations about why Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, yet he wouldn’t tell you to put away your AR-15. Spare me your worship of a piece of steel.
Spare me John Wayne. I want Jesus Christ.
In Advent you cannot prepare your hearts for Christmas, you cannot claim to long for the Prince of Peace, and then simultaneously continue to worship something designed to rack up the highest possible death toll. You cannot wait for the birth of a child full of promise, while simultaneously not thinking about those twenty children who were full of promise in Newtown. And you can’t sing the line “sleep in heavenly peace” if you are not willing to do everything you can to make sure that no parent ever again has to endure sleepless nights, wracked with grief, the week before Christmas.
Oh Prince of Peace, we need you. And we need your courage now. Help those of us who claim your name to also claim your demand for peace. Amen.

What Happens Now? – A Sermon on the Ascension for May 20, 2012

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, and sinking realization hit me: I was on my own. I wondered, was I ready? Could I do it? And most of all, what happens now?

I sometimes wonder if that’s what the disciples were thinking on the day that Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven. It seems like he is leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then had been resurrected. I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back in their midst for good. I wonder if they expected him to stay. Or were they ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin?

I always imagined that the disciples were there saying, “Where are you going? You just got back?” But Scripture tells us that they receive Christ’s blessing, and after Christ returns to heaven, they return to Jerusalem with “great joy” and that they are continuously in the temple after that, celebrating.

I wonder how long that lasted?

I was the youngest of my parents kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris. This was before the days of cell phones, and so I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks in to my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before they had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? I wonder if they too realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing sometimes. We can feel like we are on our own. As much as we beleive that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like the disciples had it easy. They at least got to have some face time with Jesus. We haven’t gotten that.

Have you ever played that game where you answer the question, “If you could have dinner with any person living or dead, who would you pick?” The answers have their fair share of presidents, famous artists, and historical figures. But whenever I’ve heard it played the one answer I hear more than any other is Jesus.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence, especially for those of us who would follow the way of Christ. I’d like to think that maybe some Tuesday Jesus and I could go down to half-price pizza night together. (I’m sure even Jesus likes a good deal.) We could sit there and talk about what how we Christians are doing on creating the world he wanted us to create. And then we could talk about how we who would be disciples sometimes get it wrong. If I could just sit with him, and talk to him, and get my marching orders directly from him, face to face, I’d know what to do. I’d be sure I was on the right path.

None of us have had that chance yet. At least I’m assuming. (If Jesus has been down at La Toscanella and you haven’t been telling me I’m going to be really sad.) Instead we have to trust the witness of the disciples, who had those sit down dinners all those years ago, and who tried to pass on what they remembered to the ones who came next, who passed it on to the ones after that, and the ones after that, and all the way down to us.

But, for those of us 2,000 years later, though, we might, understandably, ask where is God now?

Like I’ve said, I believe Jesus is still here. I believe Jesus is here with us today in worship. I even believe Jesus is down the street at the pizza place on Tuesday nights. I believe Jesus is always with us.

When Jesus returned to God he stopped being with us in a physical way. That means that he no longer was just with a small group of people in one place long ago. He now was able to be with all of us, all the time. Christ is here right now in West Dover, and he’s down the road in Brattleboro, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting AIDS. He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school, or the veteran returning from Afghanistan.

Jesus might show up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wanted me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them. That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me. And I’ve found that as hard as it may be for me to see Christ in some people, when I can do it, I’m blessed by it.

But then there’s the other side. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christ’s” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

I’ll give you an example that was shared with me. I’ve been given permission to share it with you too. Someone I know lost their father suddenly, and traumatically, when she was 9 years old. In the aftermath of his death, her Sunday school teacher went out of her way to may time and space for her. She gave her space to ask the questions she needed to ask, and reassured her that God was still there, still loving her. It didn’t make the pain go away, but it did help the girl to feel that someone was making time and space for her and taking her faith questions seriously.

That Sunday school teacher was a little Christ to the little girl who needed to know that Christ was there with her. Maybe you have your own stories. Who has been Christ to you in your life? Who has stepped in when you have needed it most, and treated you the way Christ would have? Who has seen the Christ in you, and met it with their own?

And now the harder part: How are you going to be Christ to the people in your life? To your family? To your friends? To your neighbors? To that person that annoys the ever-living love out of you?

And here’s the question for all of us gathered here today: How is this church going to be Christ to the people in our community? To those who are hungry? To those who are just getting by? To those who are sick? To those who need hope? To those who want to see who Christ really was, and how incredible that love really can be?

These are the questions we Christians ask ourselves everyday: Where can I see Christ in my life, and how can I be Christ to others? Here’s my challenge to you this week. Each day, try to see the image of Christ in someone you meet. The more difficult the better. And then, try to find Christ in yourself, and be Christ to that person. I promise, Christ is there. In both of you. And when you find him you will find that he was not the only one who was lifted up to greater things on Ascension Day. We all were. And we all continue to be. Amen.