Saturday, May 31, 2014

Where Did Jesus Go?

 Acts 1:6-14
"6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."

This passage always reminds me of Star Trek, the whole “Beam me up, Scotty” Teleportation. I mean, where does Jesus go?

Now that we know that up past the clouds are more clouds, and then the atmosphere, and then outer space, and then more outer space - where does Jesus go?
Does he just keep going up and up and up forever? Where is heaven? How long did it take him to get there? Lightyears? Can Jesus travel the speed of light? The speed of sound? Where does Jesus go?

For me, and my perpetual doubting self, the Ascension is rough. This is harder than the virgin birth, harder than the incarnation, harder than the resurrection.

Not only do we have to come to grips with some strange, mythical, theological concept of Jesus being raised into the clouds, but we have to do it after Copernicus, after Galileo, after the Scientific Method and the Age of Reason.

Where does Jesus GO?

It’s hard enough to wrap our heads around “God with us,” but how do we do that when he’s been sucked up into the clouds, and according to the art depicting him, often without shoes, in these glowing robes, and angels all around. (Why doesn’t he need his shoes?)

I guess there aren’t any rusty nails or hookworms in heaven, so maybe you just don’t need your shoes?

Is that where Jesus goes? This place called “heaven”?
Where does Jesus go?

And. Why does he leave us?
I mean, the disciples just got him back, for heaven’s sake.  They’d gone through the worst day of their lives, they’d buried their best friend, their only hope for the redemption of Israel, heck, their only hope for their very salvation. They’d seen the sky go black and the curtain rent in two. They’d carried his broken body while the Roman officials laughed in their faces. They’d laid him in a cold, hard tomb.
But, hooray! That’s not the end of the story! Jesus comes back! Full in the flesh. All eating and drinking and laughing. The same ol’ Jesus who tells stories and catches fish and speaks in strange metaphors.

Finally. Our hope is restored. “Jesus!” they ask, “are you finally going to do what we’ve wanted you to do all along? Are you finally going to restore Israel? And give us back our land? And give us back our fortunes? And give us back our power? Do we finally get what’s coming to us? Do we finally get what we deserve?!”

Ha. The disciples still don’t get it. Not after all they’ve been through. Not after all they’ve learned from Jesus about the last being first and the first being last and the putting away of swords and the sheep and the goats and all that.

Nope. Jesus is about a different sort of kingdom. A different sort of heaven.

Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us, Jesus says, “nope, that’s not what I’m about” and then he’s gone, whoosh, vanish, thwoop. Jesus is now the rabbit back in the magician’s hat, the ghost writer, the professor emeritus. Jesus has left the building.

Where does Jesus Go? And why does he have to leave us?

He’s promised to leave us the Advocate. To give us power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

But the disciples are in this in-between space. Jesus is gone. The Holy Spirit is coming. We’ve got a layover. We’re stuck at the train station. We’re sandwiched between what has been and what is yet to come.

Where does Jesus Go? Why does he have to leave us? And why the wait ‘til the Holy Spirit comes to give us some purpose, some direction, some guidance? Why the wait ‘til the plane is ready, ‘til the train is at the station, ‘til the table is set and the food is prepared?

So often, we find ourselves staring up at the clouds, at the place where the bottoms of Jesus’ soles used to be, looking for Jesus to come back down the same way he was sucked up.
But the two angels ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Because it’d be so much easier if we could get sucked up too.
It’d be so much simpler if we could just think about what it takes to get to heaven and leave it at that. It’d be so much better for us if we could just believe the right things and pray the right prayer and then wipe our hands on our pants and leave all this behind.

It’d be so much easier if I didn’t have to listen to the complaints of a homeless guy we’ll call “Mike.” He comes to The Table - our free community meal - every Tuesday and Thursday and, often before I can even get into the door, produces a list of needs for me to fill.

He needs dental floss. He needs multi-vitamins and trash bags. He needs toothpaste, but not the whitening kind because he read a study that whitening agents cause cancer. He needs socks and size 9 1/2 dark blue running shoes with a combination last and high arches.
But he rarely stays for the food.
He’s a vegetarian, he says. And it’s only when he is absolutely destitute and has no other option that he condescends to eat here with us.
Well, gee. Thanks.
And then just this Thursday he hands me a note, wadded up tightly, with the strict instructions “not to read it until after he has left.”
I’m hoping it’s a thank you note. Maybe a note of encouragement, since that’s what I’ve been trying to get this congregation to embrace lately.
But nope. It says, “Why I don’t eat here: Mike Smith’s 95 Theses”: “ You use aluminum pans, sheets, cookware etc. Aluminum is poisonous to every cell in the human body - reacts with acids, especially when heated. This leaches aluminum into the food. Aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer’s, arthritis and general decrepitude.”

Why do we stand looking up toward heaven? Because otherwise, we might get so jaded that we shut our doors. Because we might have to see this man as a manipulator and someone who just works the system. Maybe because looking into Mike’s eyes as he demands and manipulates and criticizes just makes us want to pack up our pots and pans and potato salad and spend our evenings watching Law and Order reruns. Because we might have to accept that this guy may never change. He may live under a bridge and criticize all the good around him and be lonely and afraid of death for the rest of his life.

On Wednesday a woman came to the meal at Brookline with her beautiful one year old daughter. This little girl had adorable brown curls and an easy smile, and followed her momma wherever she went. And it’s a good thing, too, because momma was twitching and bouncing and rocking and talking fast and slurring her words. She was chain smoking and the cigarette was bouncing between her fingers as she paced up and down the sidewalk.

Why do we stand looking up towards heaven? Because otherwise, we might see that little baby get hurt. We might have to watch this woman destroy her life on drugs. We might have to accept that there isn’t much we can do for either of them. We might have to feel helpless.

Just last week we had an elderly couple, or at least, I thought they were elderly come to dinner. Sharon and Phil came in, both with canes, both with bloodshot eyes and unsteady knees. Sharon made it to a seat. But Phil wasn’t so capable. He was ready to collapse right on the floor mats in front of the church entrance. And three others came up to him and grabbed his arms and caught him before he fell. And we set him in a chair, right there, right on the floor mat, certainly in the way of anyone else who might want to come in, certainly a fire hazard.

But this time, I didn’t look up toward heaven. I looked into the yellowing eyes of Jack, who pulled up a chair next to Phil and talked to him in a quiet voice. Who grabbed Phil’s meal and fed him lasagna by the spoonful and told him he was ok, and reminded him to sit up before he passed out in his meatballs and knocked over his iced tea. Who went into the kitchen to wet a cloth so he could gently clean the man’s hands and face.

If we always stand looking up towards heaven, we are gonna miss the face of Christ right here, right in front of us. In the midst of the drug addicts and the paranoia and the criticism and the fear and the men so drunk they wet themselves and fall on floor mats right in front of the church entrance.

The Holy Spirit, the very Presence of Christ, enables us to look in the yellowed tired eyes and the precocious one year olds with addicted mothers and the homeless drunks who stack the chairs and clean the tables, and see the face of Christ.

This gift, this Advocate, this dove and flame and wind, could even help us see the face of Christ in this privileged white girl with too many master’s degrees, in the hands of the wealthy Republican who ladles out the soup, in the liberal millennial covered in tattoos who washes the dishes, and in the autistic and deaf thirteen year old who comes to help, but often spills more than he delivers, and his caretaker who isn’t even sure if she believes in God.

Where does Jesus go?

I really don’t think that Jesus goes up towards heaven - not in the literal, physical, temporal way that we think.

I think Jesus goes into the eyes of the kind drunk who stays after the meal to help clean up. I think Jesus goes into the hands of the paramedics we had to call after Phil fell in the parking lot and couldn’t get up. I think Jesus goes into the heart of the woman who wrapped piles and piles of leftovers in tin-foil and packed it in the woman-with-the-baby’s bag.

Men and Women of Galilee. Men and Women of Pittsburgh and Portland and St. Louis and Detroit. Men and Women of Somalia and Syria and Ukraine and Nigeria. Men and Women of Emsworth and Homewood and Upper Saint Clair and Brookline and The Southside. Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

You are the hands and feet of Christ now. You are the eyes of Christ. You are what God is doing in the world.

It’s terrifying. And lonely. And sometimes we just want to look away. We want to Look out. Look beyond towards some kind of “heaven” that we’ve made up for ourselves.

But Jesus, Jesus, God with us, God here in the flesh with us, Jesus who represents the fullest connection between God and this world, keeps calling us to the messiness of this world, to the flesh and the bone and the alcohol on the breath and the bouncing knees of the drug addicted. To the hungry and the tired and the malnourished and the paranoid and to those of us who think we’ve got it all together. He keeps calling us to this because that’s where Jesus is. That’s where Jesus goes when he gets sucked up to heaven and seems to be so far from us and leaves us feeling alone and abandoned and lost.  He’s in those eyes we’ve been looking at all along.

Thanks be to God

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Unknown Knower

Acts 17:22-31
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
     ‘For we too are his offspring.’
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

After my son’s brother was born, I heard a lot of “Momma. Momma. Momma! Mommmmmmaaa!”
“just a minute, Jonah,” I’d say.
“hang on, Jonah,” I’d plead.
“I’m coming, Jonah,” I’d sigh.

And then I’d proceed to try doing two - or more - things at once. Nursing while spreading the peanut butter. Tying the shoe while bouncing the baby. Listening to the story about a truck and a tree and a polka dotted monster while shushing and rocking and folding the baby and the laundry, respectively. Filling the sippy cup and listening to NPR and catching the baby before he rolled off the couch.

And when I’d try to have an adult conversation? Forget it.
“Momma! Momma! Momma!”


“There’s a squirrel over there!”
“I just saw a flatbed truck!”
“Where does hail come from?”
“Why are there owls?”

I’d have to continually remind myself that I wanted the title, “Momma” and that I am honored to be called that, and that before he could talk, I couldn’t wait until he said it out loud: “Momma.”
Poor Jonah. When his brother was born, his whole world split in two. Now Momma and Dadda have two kids they’re caring for, two kids they’re devoted to, two sets of needs, two sets of demands, two sets of stories and questions and observations to listen to.

And all Jonah wants is his Momma’s attention. He wants to be the focus of her world. He wants to share his life with her and know that she’s there, that she’s listening, that she’s watching.

In our Acts passage today, Paul is entering a scene full of searchers. People full of the desire to find God, to know God, to figure God out, to know the who and the what and the why of God.

So they go to what they know - gold and silver and burnt offerings and temples and shrines. They go to reason and philosophy and altars and thinkers. And they even have enough sense to include what they don’t know - just in case they’ve missed something - the unknown god.

And Paul honors that. He honors their searching, their questions, the answers they find, and the journey they’re on. 
I think he understands how unknown God can seem.
He sees a hillside full of people calling out “God. God. God! Goddddd!!!” People aching for just a little attention from God. And so, they think, we’ll try to say it in as many ways as we can in the hopes that we’ll get it right, even just once. In hopes that God will hear us, will answer us, if we just figure out how to do it, how to be heard.

They are striving. Reaching out. Reaching towards. Reaching for. Reaching, always reaching.

And that persistence, that stubbornness, that courage and endurance is a gift. It’s a sign of grace. And is to be commended and encouraged.

But what if, after all that striving and reaching and trying, God still seems so far away?
You know, at least to me, more often than is probably “right” for a leader in the church, God seems so far away. So silent. So...unknown.
Prayers seem to go unanswered. And life is so hard. We wait for jobs or healings or our numbers to come up or for the violence to end or for the relationship to stop being so broken. And we stay unemployed, we stay sick and poor and we stay beat up and hurt by our families. The girls in Nigeria are still missing and the crisis is still going on in Ukraine and there are still shootings in Homewood and the baby still won’t sleep through the night and the pollen in the air just won’t let up and that tumor is still there, still growing.
And maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe we’ll look back on all this tough stuff and we’ll see where God was working. But for now, it’s empty. It’s an abyss. It’s looking down into a steaming volcano. It’s the profound darkness of a cave when you turn off your headlamps. It’s 11:00 at night and you still have three loads of laundry to do and lunches to pack. You’re 65 and you still haven’t saved a dime for your retirement. You’re an alcoholic and you know you’re drinking yourself to death but the thought of quitting seems impossible, so you take one more drink. You’ve fed a 100 people at your community meal and they’re back the next day, hungry again.

Still we search.
We call out and hear our echoes against the cave walls.
We feel the weight of the darkness. It makes it hard to breathe. And yet we keep breathing.
We put up shrines to God - hoping that if we change them from gold to silver, from traditional to contemporary worship, from organs to guitars and drum kits, from the Latin Mass to the Quaker Meeting, from socialism to capitalism, from Democrat to Republican and back again, that we’ll finally get it right.

We are searching for an unknown God. At least, a God who can never be fully known. At least, not independently, not on our own.
It’s as if the more we walk towards God, the further away God is.
And yet. And yet, Paul tells us, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  - Fascinatingly, this is not even a traditional Christian or Jewish thought - it is a Greek concept. And yet, nonetheless true. A foreign idea that still proclaims the truth of God.

For in God we live and move and have our very being.

We are inside of God. In the womb of God. Living off of, being created by, breathing in the very being of God.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

It’s not what we do, but who we are that makes us children of God. God is the air that we breathe.

Does a fish notice the water all around it? Or does it simply swim, going about its fishy day, never noticing that the substance all around it is what gives it breath and life?
God is the air we breathe. That substance or light or spirit all around us that we fail to notice, but is still there, still present and consistent and life-giving nonetheless.

And it is God who knows us. Who surrounds us. Who has birthed us. Who sees us.

The Athenians, though commendable in their attempt to know God, have it backwards.
In their striving to know God, they miss that God already knows them.

Our God is The Unknown Knowing God.

And whether we know it or not doesn’t make it any less true. Whether the fish knows what this water does for it, whether it knows that it needs the water flowing over its gills in order to have life or not, doesn’t make the water any less real, any less necessary, any less life giving.

It’s not what we hear or what we feel or what we believe or what we know.
It is that we are known.

I don’t think this just a diatribe against idols. Although it is that. I think that the real question here is one of direction - our constant striving to get God right - to make God out of silver or gold or “Facebook likes” or bank accounts or military might - versus our need, and God’s desire, for us to know that God has gotten us right. We’ll never be able to know and see and love God like we should. But we are known and seen and loved by God. And that’s Grace. And that’s what it’s all about.

When I travelled to India in 2005, I was really perplexed by the thousands of deities we saw in the hundreds of temples and shrines that we visited all over the country. First, I was surprised by how small these deities seemed. We’d walk through these giant temples, with parapets reaching to the skies and towering gates filled with ornately decorated scenes from the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana and the Vedas, walk through what seemed like miles of courtyards and walkways to the center of the temple to get a glimpse of the main deity housed within. And then, there it would be, most of them 2-3 feet tall. A stone figure, draped in silk and flowers and spices, but almost disappointingly unimpressive.

I mean, obviously, they had to know that God was so much bigger than this carved stone, more than this porcelain figure, more than this tiny flame dancing in an oil lamp.

And yet they approached this deity with all the boldness and adoration of the children of God.

But I don’t think devotees come to these shrines to see the fullness of God. I think they come with incredible humility, they come with the realization that this tiny little figure, this piece of carved rock or painted porcelain is all the God they can really know, all the God that they can handle.

They don’t come to their temple to know God. They come to be seen by God.

It’s a concept called, “Darshan.” - Being seen by God is so much more important than knowing all there is to know about God.
In fact these deities are just plastic or porcelain or stone - just objects - until they are literally given eyes, until they are able to see.
For the Hindus, and I think for us, too, God isn’t God unless God sees, unless God knows, unless God comes to us.

And the ultimate Darshan? The ultimate seeing? The ultimate knowing that God comes to us?
It is the one in whom the Father lives, and the one who lives in the Father.
The one who advocates for us.
The one whom we can know - just a little bit - because he abides with us, and he is in us, just as we are in him.

The incarnation:
God’s greatest expression that you are known. That you are loved. That you are in God and God is in you. That in him we live and move and have our being.

And our response? Our response to our being known is to be the hands and feet of Christ himself. To follow Christ’s commandment to love one another, as we are loved. To know one another as we are known.

When Jonah is calling out to me, “Momma! Momma! Momma!”, instead of being totally overwhelmed and flabbergasted and annoyed, when I stop what I’m doing, when I bend down to him and look him in the eye and say, “Yes, Jonah, you have my full attention,” that is when he and I are most connected, when he knows that I am listening, that I am fully participating in his life, that I’m ready to respond to what he wants to show me, and that I am truly delighted to hear his question or his story or see the nest in the tree or the rock on the sidewalk or the red car that just passed by.

God’s always bending down to us. Knowing us. Reminding us that we are fully known. Looking us in the eye and saying, “yes, sweet child of mine, yes, yes, you have my full attention.”

Thanks be to God.