There is Work to be Done – May 28, 2017
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
We never know what’s coming our way next. Do we? We can plan well and far ahead. We can take precautions in advance of possible setbacks. We can map out our calendar. We can make the best investments. We can eat the right foods and be faithful to our exercise routine. But we never really know what’s ahead.
Two thousand years ago, a small band of women and men decided to follow a compelling teacher, a rabbi, who preached a very different perspective about God and faith and life than the old time religion to which they had been accustomed. They lived in community with one another for three years, witnessed the marvelous signs and healings Jesus performed, scratched their heads a lot after he had told a puzzling parable or two, and eventually trusted him enough to be sent out on mission on their own to spread the Good News.
Imagine their disbelief as they watched him be arrested, tried, convicted, tortured and nailed to a cross. Three days later they would hear the news that his tomb was empty and that he had risen from the dead—all confirmed by multiple appearances Jesus made to them over the next forty days. In both the first reading today from Acts and the Gospel we find eleven forlorn disciples gazing up into the sky. I wonder what they were doing that night before what we observe as “Ascension Day.” Were they dining with Jesus? Were they still hiding for fear of meeting the same fate as he did? Was Jesus even there with them—or had they not seen him for several days? And, did they even know he was going to be leaving them the very next day? I’ll bet on the last possibility—that they had no idea. Our truth was their truth: We never know what’s coming our way next. No wonder they all stood around looking up into the heavens. What a dramatic exit!
This Ascension story is told by Luke whom we believe wrote the Acts of the Apostles as well as one of the Gospels. He was a physician and an historian and pretty down-to-earth. I don’t think he made this up. The story must have meant a lot to him and he must have wanted to convey something very important to tell it twice pver.
We may see this as a goodbye story, the ending to the many chapters in the lives of the disciples. “Stay here in this city,” Jesus commands them, “until you are clothed with the power from above.” What Jesus was telling them was that they should shift their attention from what had been and turn it to what was yet to come. “Stop looking up to the sky,” the white-robed characters in Acts tells them; “Look around you instead. There is work to be done.”
The film My Big Fat Greek Wedding tells that story of a young woman living in an old world Greek family. Her father is not just Greek, but fanatically Greek. Gus believes that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and those who wish they were Greeks. When his daughter falls in love with a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant, her father is distraught. She wants to marry a “xeno,” (the Greek word for “foreigner” and the source of the word xenophobia, an irrational aversion to people we see as different, as strangers. If you’re not one of us, then you are less than us.”
That’s the kind of culture into which those followers of Jesus took his message, a message of compassion, radical inclusion, and a commandment to love one another without regard to one’s pedigree. They lived in a world of intolerance, oppression, and violence. That message was a hard sell for them and, sadly, it is still for us who want to follow Jesus. We are living in a culture that is splintered by divisions of all kinds and polluted by fear and distrust of others who are different—the xenoi—the stranger, the outsider. Violence, oppression and intolerance still reign.
Just this week we saw this in the horror of the explosion at a concert in Manchester that killed 32 people, the youngest just 8 years old, and in the massacre of 29 Christians on a bus headed for a monastery in Egypt. We are approaching the anniversaries of the 2016 shootings in Orlando, killing 49 people at a gay nightclub and the 2015 shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, which claimed the life of the senior pastor and eight others, reminiscent of the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. These are the tragic events that are on the news and there are so many other incidents of which we may never be aware.
How do we disciples convert hostility into hospitality? Exclusion into embrace? Violence into thoughtful conversation? For it is only through that kind of radical transformation that we really demonstrate who God is and what the world can become. Any religion or faith tradition that is not rooted in that central practice of godly hospitality and a longing for justice, mercy, and peace is counterfeit. How do demonstrate that our Christianity is authentic?
The Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote several famous operas. During his battle with terminal cancer he began to write Turandot, now considered by many as his best work. When his sickness worsened, Puccini said to his disciples, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it.” When he died in 1924, they gathered all that was written of the opera, studied it in great detail, and wrote the remainder of it.
Its world premiere was performed in La Scala Opera House in Milan and Toscanini, Puccini’s favorite student, conducted it. When he came to the end of the part written by Puccini, the conductor stopped the music, put down the baton, turned to the audience, and explained, “Thus far the master wrote, but he died.” There was a long pause; no one moved. Then Toscanini picked up the baton, turned to the audience and, with tears in his eyes, said, “But his disciples finished his work.”
You and I signed up for that kind of work —completing what Jesus began. In our discouragement with what is happening in our country and our world, it is very easy to be like the matronly lady who was buying some perfume. The sales person pointed out some of the selections: “Passion,” “Desire,” “Ecstasy.” “Well,” the woman exclaimed, “I don’t want to get involved, I just want to smell good.”
Christianity only smells good when those who embrace it dive in with both feet and commit to making this a kinder, gentler world. Jesus never said we had to do it all—just that we need to get about doing it. In his Ascension he bids good-bye—God be with you now and forever. He blesses. He promises: God’s power, not the world’s power, will reign.We must do the rest.