Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

Last fall I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 155 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 155 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

Noah’s Dove and the Olive Leaf – Sermon for September 4, 2011

Genesis 8:6-12

6 After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Last Saturday night the leaders of both churches and I made the decision to cancel church the next morning. We weren’t sure whether anything would come out of the weather reports we were hearing, but we thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Last Sunday morning, when we would have been in church, like many of you I watched the river rise in my front yard, praying it wouldn’t come any closer. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and changed so much about this place we love.

Last Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation in Wilmington and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, “This is God showing us what he can do.”

I’ve never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn’t know what else to say:

“God meant this for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. God has a plan.”

It wasn’t the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

“God willed someone who had a few drinks to many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father’s gun that hadn’t been locked up?”

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It’s not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God’s strength. God does not wreak devastation because “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

We read a passage from Genesis this morning. It’s the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s promise. After the waters from the flood receded, Noah sent a dove out in order to find out whether it was safe again.

The first time the bird came back, finding no safe place to land. For seven days it stayed with Noah.

Seven days. Seven days later he sent out another dove. And the dove found that the world was not back to normal yet. But it was starting to be. And it plucked an olive leaf from a tree and it brought it back to Noah as a I sign of the hope that they could have in a world rebuilt.

Seven days. One week. One week ago we walked down into Wilmington, or East Dover, or Wardsboro to see what had happened, and we were like the dove who couldn’t its our feet down on solid ground. Our entire worlds have been changed.

One week later we come here to claim an olive leaf. We come to see God’s promise starting to come through once again. We look around and we see evidence of God’s grace working through this to create good. God did not send this flood, but God can work through even the worst of situations to transform them, and to transform us.

The olive leaf that the dove brought back was a sign of hope. And this week I have seen a lot of olive leaves. I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways.

As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the lines between neighbors were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them. Many of you cleaned out friends’ stores, helped neighbors move, served meals at the shelter, handed out water at the church, stacked shelves at the food pantry, organized diaper delivery, and in so many other ways demonstrated that hope is real.

And the olive leaves, the symbols of hope that we claim a week later, they are not just here in the valley. They are all over. Within hours after the rains came, checks were on the way to the pastor’s discretionary funds of both churches from people across the country. Within days Church World Service, the organization we donated to last spring after the tsunamis in Japan, had sent disaster supplies up here to us.

Later in the week we heard that both churches had been sent funds from the national United Church of Christ so that we can help our neighbors in the coming months. You may remember that in the spring we took up a collection for the UCC’s storm relief fund. And now here we are, just a few months later, finding that what we gave is coming back to us. In addition, throughout the week I’ve received calls from numerous UCC churches throughout New England that wanted to know how to help us. This week I have been reminded more than ever that we are stronger because we do not stand alone. We are all interconnected, and when we think beyond our own needs, we find that we are the ones who are often strengthened the most.

But, as Christians we already knew that. Because as Christians we know that we do not live in isolation from one another, or from our Creator. We know that Christ did not choose one disciple. He chose many, and he taught them to serve not themselves, but one another. This week I saw so many people, both here and in places far away, living into the kind of community Christ wanted us to have. In the coming weeks and months, may we continue to do the same. Even when things look hard.

Two weeks ago I had coffee at Dot’s, walked down to some of your shops, and stopped to look at books at Bartleby’s. It was a warm summer’s day, and everything seemed perfect. Last week the buildings I’d been in were torn apart. They were the first things I saw when I walked into town. There was so much devastation. It took my breath away.

But, like you, I come here every Sunday because I believe in resurrection. I come here because I know someone who was subjected the worst that this world could do to him, who suffered alongside of us, and who the whole world thought had been destroyed.

Except he lived.

When I took that walk around Wilmington last week, I wasn’t in love with the buildings or the businesses. I was in love with the people, even with all of our imperfections. I was in love with who we were, and who we are, and who we will be.

And today I am grabbing hold of that olive leaf. That what made our community special a week ago was not what we had built, but who we were. We are a community that can rebuild, because even as the landscape has changed, who we are has not.

We come here because we believe in our hearts that resurrection is possible. I can’t tell you what that resurrection will look like yet, but I can tell you that God can work through us to make it good. Our hope is in a God who so long ago brought new life after the world was flooded. God still can, and God still will.

May God bless us all in the coming days, and in the coming months, and may God pour out a blessing on this whole Valley. Amen.

“Faith, Doubt and Everything in Between” – Sermon for May 1, 2011

John 20:19-31
20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

20:24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

20:25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

20:26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

20:27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

20:29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We all have doubts. We don’t talk about that much in the church, but it’s true. Even the most devout person you know has questions and wonders sometimes, “Is this really true?” I wouldn’t trust anyone who told me that they’ve never had a moment of doubt.

It’s always been that way in the church. Even from the very first community of faith, the disciples. Even after the resurrection.

The disciples are sitting around the table in a locked house. They are afraid of the crowd, and they are hunkering down together. And all of a sudden, Jesus is there. And he tells them “peace be with you”. He shows them the wounds in his hands and in his side, and breathes upon them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. And they believe.

There’s always one guy who is late to dinner, though. Thomas. Jesus comes and he is not there. By the time he gets there, Jesus is gone and despite the story he hears from the other disciples he says “unless I see it for myself, I don’t believe it.”

That would be my luck. The one day I was late for dinner, Jesus would just drop by. I’d imagine that if I got there I’d say something to my friends like, “I don’t believe you. Come on…I’m not that gullible.” I wonder if Thomas thought his friends were playing a practical joke on him.

The next week, though, it happens again. Thomas has learned his lesson and gotten there on time, and Jesus shows up. And even with Jesus right in front of him, Thomas is still on the fence. So Jesus tells him, put your hands to my hands. Put them on my side. Believe.

And he cries out, “My Lord and my God.” And he believes.

Sometimes don’t you wish we could do that too? Sometimes, when our doubt is getting the best of us, when we are wrestling with the demons of doubt, don’t you wish that Jesus would come and physically stand in front of you and say “take my hands…believe”?

Jesus asks Thomas, “Did you believe because you saw me?” And then he says, “blessed are those who don’t see me, but who believe anyway.” And what he’s really saying to all of us who believe, no matter how imperfectly, is “blessed are you”.

Today is confirmation day. Two of our youth are making a thoughtful commitment to confirm their baptisms and become full members of our church. John and Anna have made a thoughtful, prayerful decision and are ready at this point in their lives to claim this faith, and to commit to walking on this journey with us. We are all so proud of you.

But you need to hear, John and Anna, that even if you hadn’t made this decision, God would have still loved you. God’s love and God’s grace exist even if we don’t acknowledge them. But almost as much as you need to hear that God still would have loved you, you need to know that we would have loved you too.
A friend of mine from seminary interned in a fairly large Presbyterian church in Atlanta. They had a big confirmation class one year. Over 30 people. And her son was in it. He had doubts, and she rightly said the decision to be confirmed was his. All she asked was that he go to all the confirmation classes first.

At the end of it, he alone out of all the students in the class, chose not to be confirmed. It caused a bit of a ruckus in the church. The seminarian’s student didn’t get confirmed. The pastor, the church leaders, all weighed in.

The day of the confirmation all the other youth were confirmed, and they went out afterwards to celebrate with their families. My friend took her son out too. Not to celebrate confirmation, but to congratulate him on making his first adult decision.

This week Dorie’s son will graduate from the Citadel, a military college that places a high premium on integrity. He will be commissioned as an Army officer this week as well. I told Dorie that her son’s decision as a teenager not to be confirmed was a good indicator of the man of integrity he would later become. One who could not make a commitment he didn’t believe in. He is still unsure of the specifics of his belief, but he is loved by God none the less.

You don’t get confirmed to please other people. You don’t do it out of fear that God won’t love you anymore. You do it because it’s the decision, and commitment, that you have made. And Anna and John, you have made a decision to publicly say “this is what I believe”. You may not have every theological detail worked out in your minds yet, but you know enough to say this is the road that I will travel.

I told the youth that one thing that would happen after confirmation is that they would have full membership in our church. They would be eligible to sit in all the leadership roles we offer, and they would have a vote at our congregational meetings.

I’m not sure the prospect of voting on church budgets was all that exciting for them. But there was something that was. And that was that they are now in a position where they can help to shape the direction of this church. They can help us to envision the church that needs to be here for their generation, and they can bring the light that God is giving to new generations into our church. Listen to them. They know more about God’s plan than we realize.

And we have already influenced them more than we know. Anna sent me her confirmation paper yesterday, and she told me I could read you a passage. I’ll share it with you now:

Confirmation can mean a lot of things. To me it means confirming my baptism. It means the start of adulthood. It means gaining responsibility and leadership. And most of all, it is a new start in a church that I love.
Confirmation means to me that I am confirming my baptism. I am saying that I agree with my parent’s decision to let me have a Christian life. I see it as a commitment to Christianity and to my church.
I also feel that confirmation is a good way to start having a voice and an opinion, not only in church. When you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you. That way you can be helped along the way without worrying about doing anything wrong. Our church is the perfect place to start trying to be a leader and having a voice.

I especially love that last paragraph. The part about, “when you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you.”

I was thinking about that. I moved here to West Dover a year ago today. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my first Sunday with you all. I had been ordained for a few years before I met you all, but this was my first parish. My first time being a pastor. And I was both hopeful and afraid. And Anna’s words are true, “When you learn to do something it’s best to learn to do it surrounded by people who love and support you. That way you can be helped along the way without worrying about doing anything wrong.”

Thank you for helping me along the way. And thank you for helping them along their way. And thank you for helping each other. Thank you for being there when we come to one another like Thomas did to Jesus, cautiously, doubtfully, yet hopefully. In many ways, we are the ones who show each other the signs of Christ’s return. We are the ones who hold out our hands so that others may believe. We are Christ’s body shown to the entire world. And we are called out for all the world to see, now more than ever. Amen.