Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mark 4:26-34 "Inch by Inch, Row by Row"

         Sometimes we call it the Kingdom of God.  Less often now in these post-modern days, we refer to it as the Kingdom of Heaven.  At other times, we just say “The Kingdom” and we know – kinda, sorta – what it is we are talking about:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 
         There you have it!  We read about it – “The Kingdom”, I mean - in all four of our Gospels.  We pray about it whenever we even whisper the Lord’s Prayer.  We listen to preachers prattle on in worship about it.  The words slip effortlessly off our tongues…the kingdom, the kingdom, the kingdom. 
         But what do we really believe about this Kingdom that we read and pray and speak of so nonchalantly?  Are we like the pastor and her congregation who had this conversation when they found themselves in the midst of a severe drought:
PASTOR: “There is nothing we can do but pray for rain. Go home, pray, believe, and come back next Sunday ready to thank God for sending rain.
Seven days pass, and it is the following Sunday.
PASTOR: “We can’t worship today because you do not believe.”
CONGREGATION: ”Pastor, but we prayed - and we do believe.”
PASTOR: “Then, where are your umbrellas?”
         Ah, when it comes to the Kingdom, most of us left our umbrellas at home, I suspect, not knowing much at all about this Kingdom that we say we believe in and continue to read and pray and listen to our preacher prattle on about.  But just what do we believe about this Kingdom?  And can we really believe anything at all about it if we really do not know just what it is?  
         Succinctly put then:  What is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God’s dream?  That is a rhetorical question, I guess.  I mean, how are we supposed to know what the Kingdom is all about when clearly Jesus’ disciples did not have a clue, and they were with him 24/7?
         Surely that is why Jesus – being a good rabbi and all - told them little stories about the Kingdom of God’s dream, so they would know what to expect when God’s reign on earth began.  He presented them with little puzzles that we call parables, so they could begin to focus their efforts on preparing the carpenters and shopkeepers they knew and the peasants they met along the way, prepare them for the Kingdom’s inevitable arrival. 
         In his three or so years of ministry, Jesus spun a series of tales:  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like an old stooped over cleaning lady who searches her entire house, turning everything upside down and inside out until she finds a coin she has misplaced. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like wedding feast to which all the oddballs and down-and-outers are invited – while the rich and famous folks find themselves left outside not knowing what they are missing – until it is too late. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a father who welcomes home his misguided son, the young and impetuous one who left in a huff years before and lived the good life until he gambled all his worldly possessions away in Las Vegas. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like…..
         And then one day, Jesus was walking with his followers in the spring of the year.  The sky was a milky blue.  The sun shone warm upon their faces, and he had just told them a story about a farmer who tossed seeds hither and yon, seemingly oblivious as to whether they landed on rocky soil, amongst the weeds, or on fertile ground.  Jesus explained that little story in detail to the twelve who were hanging on his every word.  After all, most of them were illiterate fishermen or brain-bound tax collectors and could not be expected to know the ins and outs of a farmer’s life.
         And as the warm wind gusted playfully about the little group, picking up the dust on the road and swirling it into tiny funnels, Jesus, perhaps overwhelmed by an ancient sense of creation spirituality, continued in this agricultural mode and told his friends two more parables about the Kingdom of God’s dream.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus taught, is like a farmer who faithfully sowed his seeds – inch by inch, row by row - trusting in the sun to shine and the rain to fall.  And as the farmer slept at night, deep beneath the ground, in the dark, the seeds cracked open one by one and quietly began to sprout.  And the sun shone, and the rain fell.  And the farmer slept peacefully night after night - trusting, always trusting.  And far below the ground, the seeds – unnoticed – germinated – inch by inch, row by row.
         Then one morning, the first green shoots broke through the soil and found the sun.  And leaves appeared, and the stalks grew tall, and wheat formed, and the harvest was good, and the poor had bread to make it through the winter.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like that, Jesus said – not like a bulldozer tearing up the field, but oftentimes so quiet and unobtrusive that you cannot even see it growing – but it is, and you cannot stop it - and then one day the harvest comes, and there is enough to go around. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus continued (just in case the disciples still did not get it), the Kingdom of God’s dream is like a mustard seed.  And his followers snickered at that analogy because a mustard seed was awfully small and because they lived in the Kingdom of Caesar’s Rome, which, as everyone with half a brain knew, was awfully big, and it would take something more substantial than a mustard seed to free them all from the domination system that had oppressed them for centuries. 
         But no, Jesus assured them.  The Kingdom of God’s dream really is like a mustard seed – and you know about mustard seeds.  Inch by inch, row by row, they grow into shrubs that, before you know it, come up to your waist and, if you do not watch out, they will spread - like kudzu in the South – or Japanese knotweed here in Maine. 
         Try as you might, Jesus implied, you will not be able to stop the Kingdom of God’s dream once it gets a foothold.  It will quickly get out of control and – beware – it will have some mighty dangerous invasive properties. 
         Some would say that, as much as you want the Kingdom of God’s dream to come on earth as it is in heaven, you really want it only in very small bits and in carefully controlled doses – even if you could control it – which you cannot – like Jesus’ first parable emphasized.  Simply put, the Kingdom of God’s dream is coming – whether we like it or not.  Inch by inch, row by row.
         And about those birds that built their nests in the mustard shrub?  Jesus assured his disciples that you would not have to look far to realize that the mustard bush was big enough for all sorts of disparate birds of a feather to flock together – Muslim and Christian, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor.  Imagine!  So here is another thing about the Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus declared:  It is big enough for everyone.
         In the end, the point that Jesus made to his disciples if they took the time to puzzle through the parables is that (as Lutheran pastor Jonathan Davis speculates) “the Kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Rome.  It doesn’t look like power and strength. And sometimes, we just can’t see it.  It’s like a seed, growing slowly underneath the soil, where the gardener can’t see what’s happening beneath the surface.  But other times, when we do see it, it just seems so small and insignificant, like a mustard seed, that we don’t recognize the kingdom of God that was hidden within it.”  But in the end, there will be a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.  There will be a world invaded and overrun with compassion and justice.
         OK, we might say, that is all well and good – but surely it is a wee bit polly- anna-ish.  After all, who can deny it? Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  Sometimes we seem more like voices crying in the wilderness, fearful that we are not heard. 
         Look at what goes on around us!  Our senators and representatives talk and talk and talk – and each day every word they speak on the floor is carefully recorded in the daily Congressional Record – so many words, so many pages.  The White House issues thousands of pages of policy initiatives.  Words, words, words. The United Nations and the G7 cobble together pages of solutions to the world’s problems.  Such a huge output of words, so many thousands of documents – all designed to make the world a better place! 
         And yet here we stand in the footsteps of Jesus, raising up sixteen chapters– a thin volume – that we call the Gospel of Mark, making our audacious claim that, though we certainly do not deny the role of government, the message of Jesus ultimately holds the meaning and secret we are all searching for – compassion, peace, reconciliation, justice – inch by inch, row by row.
         Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  And yet, all we are asked to do is plant seeds and trust that God will do the rest.  Inch by inch, row by row.  As United Church of Christ pastor Kate Huey reminds us:  No matter how ‘small’ and powerless we may feel (or be told that we are), no matter how unlikely or unqualified we may seem to others, we can still feel the power of God's spirit at work in us, and dream the dream that God has for this world. We look around and see the influence and effects of others (for good or ill), and we realize that we too can be a blessing in our individual lives, and in (and through) the life of our communities.”
         Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  And as our church right here in Raymond, these days sometimes we seem smaller than ever.  And yet….
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a tiny acorn that grows into a strong and sturdy oak tree.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a stone that is tossed into a pond and you watch in wonder as the ripples created spread further and further from the center – and you can do nothing to stop them.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Linda and Caryl helping to pack up Pauline’s apartment and get her moved into Casco Terrace.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Martha working week in and week out at the food pantry.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Chloe and Robbie’s stepmother doing a one woman bottle drive and raising over $500.00 for our Pilgrim Lodge Scholarship Fund.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Brenda not resting on the laurels of retirement but plunging into being our Treasurer.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Cherie generously volunteering to share her love of music and her piano skills when needed.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like five amateur wood butchers going to Maine Seacoast Mission to skirt a trailer and, perhaps more importantly in the long run, to befriend a disabled and hardworking young man and his mother. 
         As Presbyterian pastor Stephen McKinney-Whitaker reminds us:  The Kingdom of God starts off small and grows of itself, independent of our tricks, trends, and tampering. It grows in ways we cannot see and cannot know, until it breaks forth from the ground and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, big enough for people to come from east and west and north and south, from left and right, from uptown and downtown, to sit at the Table together.”
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this congregation when we are at our very best – when we take the time to plant the seeds – over and over again, day in and day out – even when it seems to make no difference.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this church family when we realize that church is not about what we get out of it but rather what, through it, we are able to give.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this faith community – but only if we are seed planters – planting seeds of justice, peace, reconciliation, and radical welcome, seed planters who trust that when those seeds are planted, God will do the rest – and we will be unstoppable – like kudzu, like Japanese knotweed.  Inch by inch, row by row.

        




Saturday, June 2, 2018

John 3:1-17 "In the Midnight Hour"

         The late Roman Catholic Cardinal Cushing tells of an occasion when he was administering last rites to a man who had collapsed in a general store. Following his usual custom, the Cardinal knelt by the man and asked, "Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost?"
         The man roused a little bit, opened one eye, stared at the Cardinal with a most quizzical look on his face, and replied, "Here I am, dying, and you are asking me a riddle?"
         Good questions – both that of the Cardinal and that of the dying man!  "Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost?"  “Do you believe in Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit?”  Do you believe in the Trinity?  Dying or not, whatever are we to make of such riddles, those puzzles underlying the Christian doctrine of a Triune God?
         God the Father is comprehensible – though necessarily limiting if the only images we come up with are an angry old man with a long white beard or a distant regal presence ensconced on a golden throne in some galaxy far, far away.  Creator as a name for this aspect of the Trinity is far less gender-biased, and adds a significant breadth and depth, creating a marvelous three dimensionality and certain richness to this third of the Trinity – in my humble opinion.
         God the Son is more understandable.  After all, we have the four Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that outline the life and ministry of the one we call Jesus, the Christ.  Emmanuel, God with Us, the Incarnation is something we can at least begin to wrap our minds around – but only if we think of Jesus less as the old angry man come to earth in a new form and more as the person who completely reflected in his own self God’s dream for the world, who was the perfect and complete embodiment of God’s sacred penchant for compassion and reconciliation. 
         But the Holy Spirit?  For most of us, that is the most mysterious third of the Trinity and always seems to be the stumbling block – at least in a mainline Protestant denomination, such as we in the United Church of Christ. 
         You see, face it.  The Holy Spirit makes most of us feel pretty uncomfortable. We cannot seem to put our finger on just who it is and what its purpose is:  Advocate and comforter, wild and unpredictable as the gusting wind, hot as a lit match, gentle as a dove.  For those of us who pride ourselves in being rational and pragmatic in our religious outlook, thereby never fully denying our staid Puritanical roots, for us, the Holy Spirit is a little bit too wild and crazy, a tad too unpredictable and hot, and downright too weird for our liking. 
         Like the embarrassing younger sibling we always seek to avoid, we push this part of the Holy Trinity into the background, hoping to, if not forget her, at least keep her under wraps and thereby under control.  After all, if we did not, well, we would all end up as Pentecostals speaking in tongues or Shakers expressing our spirit-filled hearts with dances of wild abandon.  Then what would happen to our staunch New England Yankee persona?
         And yet, each year, without fail, on the Sunday after Pentecost (which was last Sunday), we come hard up against Trinity Sunday, a day intentionally set aside in the church to reflect on our Triune God – with a particular emphasis on the Holy Spirit. And this year, because the Holy Spirit continues to cause such a conundrum for us, we look to the story of Nicodemus to begin to unravel her mystery. Why this story?  Because Nicodemus seemed to be as much perplexed by the whole rigmarole as we are.
         Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  He knew Holy Scripture – the law and the prophets – like the back of his hand.  He kept all the rules of religion.  He was an upright man, a learned man, a leader, teacher, and, above all, one who was respected in Jewish religious circles. 
         Apparently, Nicodemus had heard of Jesus.  He must have participated in the backroom conversations among the temple hierarchy and listened to – and maybe at times even adding his own  - backhanded comments that were fast burgeoning into a deep mistrust of this renegade, uneducated man who called himself a rabbi. 
         Perhaps Nicodemus had been prowling around, hiding in a back ally close to where Jesus was teaching.  Maybe he had heard bits and pieces of a sermon or a parable:  “I am the light of the world, the bread of life, the vine, the way…” The Kingdom of God is like…a hidden treasure, a lost coin, a tiny mustard seed.”  “Blessed are the gentle, the pure of heart…” “A man went down from Jericho and fell among thieves…”
     “Humph!  What is all that supposed to mean?”  Nicodemus must have wondered.  “Is it blasphemy? Or fake news?”
         However, Nicodemus was something his fellow Pharisees were not.  Nicodemus was curious about this man Jesus.  He was also bewildered by the message Jesus preached of a God who was more concerned with how you treated the poor and the small acts of compassion you did without thinking than about the strict rules of when you had to wash and what animal or bird you had to sacrifice and what you could and could not do on the Sabbath.  In the end, Nicodemus saw Jesus less as a threat to the religious hierarchy and more as someone who maybe – just maybe – knew something about God that had so far escaped him and his fellow Pharisees. 
         And so on a dark and moonless night, when the clouds scuttering across the sky blocked out most of the stars, Nicodemus pulled his old restless, achy body out of bed and threw on his robe and slippers.  He surreptitiously edged his way out the back door, and the darkness enveloped him before any of his neighbors knew he was out and about in the midnight hour. 
         Maybe our curious Pharisee went in the darkness because he was embarrassed to be found out as one who questioned his own faith.  Maybe he was afraid that he would lose his status of religious bigwig. 
         Or, maybe he went to Jesus at night because he finally realized that he had been stumbling around in the dark long enough.  Maybe going to Jesus at night said less about the hour or about the condition of Nicodemus’ faith and more about the state of his life and how the old ways just did not cut it any more. 
         As Episcopal priest Michael Marsh noted, “By night everything is hidden. (In the darkness, we are) grasping for something to hold, seeking answers and explanations for our life. Everything has been turned upside down and nothing is certain. In the dark life doesn’t make sense and we don’t understand. The night is a time of vulnerability, questions, and wrestling with life.”
         Whatever the reason, Nicodemus made his way slowly to the house where Jesus was staying and rapped three times on his door.  Jesus answered, of course, because Jesus always answers the door when we knock.  And the two men – one old with a touch of arthritis and a lot of jaded cynicism and one young who was wise beyond his years – sat on the wall by the patio and had a conversation that surely blew the mind of our rational and pragmatic and everything needs to be seen to be believed Pharisee.
         Now, Nicodemus did not want to know what he must do to have eternal life or how he could be assured that he had a one-way ticket to heaven and the golden throne.  No - Nicodemus just wanted to understand.  And so he begins with a flattering entre:  Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
         Jesus, not surprisingly, does not even acknowledge the accolades.  Instead, he launches into a puzzling sermon of sorts before Nicodemus can even ask his question. 
          “I am telling you the truth (Jesus tells the Pharisee): no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
         Nicodemus, for his part, is clueless.  As theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “That was all very well, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five?
How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning?  (Nicodemus) even got a little sarcastic. Could one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" he asked, when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver coming around to give him a shove from behind?”
             “How can a grown man be born again?” Nicodemus queried. “He certainly cannot enter his mother's womb and be born a second time!”
             “I am telling you the truth,” replied Jesus, “that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.  A person is born physically of human parents, but is born spiritually of the Spirit.  Do not be surprised because I tell you that you must all be born again.
         Buechner continues by writing:  A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake.”
            “”The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
             “How can this be?” asked Nicodemus breathlessly.
         How?  Why?  Because God so loved the world…..
         The Spirit, then, is what makes the dying embers in our own hearts burst into flame.  The Spirit is what causes us to look twice at the homeless man with the sign on the street corner in Portland – and at the least make eye contact and smile so he knows that we are human too.  The Spirit is what nudges us to deeply and intentionally reflect on what our church is supposed to be about in a complex and changing world. The Spirit is what prods us to love the world as God does.
         And to be born again? Now that is a phrase that has been bandied about in recent years.  However, It has nothing to do with answering an altar call and accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior once and for all time – as the Evangelical Right would have us believe. 
         If being born means breathing oxygen into one’s lungs, then being born again has everything to do with breathing in the grace and love of God over and over again into your soul, into your being.  Being born again has everything to do with allowing the Spirit to reshape, form, and mold us  - day in and day out - into the likeness of Christ, so we can be his hands and feet in the world  - day in and day out - because to be anything less is to be without Spirit.
         Do you believe in Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit?  Have I confused you enough about just what this Holy Spirit part of the Trinity is all about? Are you scratching your head and thinking that being here listening to the preacher prattle on is like the man who was only seen in church one Sunday a year. No, it was not Easter. It was Trinity Sunday – today!
         A fellow parishioner had restrained his curiosity year after year but could not contain it any more. And so he approached the man and said, "I have noticed that you select this particular day every year for your only visit to church. Why might that be?"
         "Oh, that's easy to explain," the man said. "I like to come on this day, so I can hear the preacher get all tangled up trying to explain the Trinity!"
         And so, in concluding, let me put this Holy Spirit and born again business in as simple words as possible. If you are as confused as Nicodemus most certainly was and remember nothing else about this sermon, tuck away these words of Presbyterian pastor Laura Mendenhall who noted, “To be born of the (Spirit) is to trust our life to the God who gives birth to us. To be born of the (Spirit) is to embrace the mysterious newness of God knowing we do not have a final hold (on this Triune God). To be born of the (Spirit) is to live as ones born of love.”
         Oh, and also remember that we do not know if Nicodemus understood the Spirit any better when he left Jesus and trundled back to bed that night.  Presumably he returned to being a Pharisee as there is reference to him later in this Gospel dispensing justice in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish temple court.
        However, we do not hear of Nicodemus again really until the Gospel writer tells us that he showed up after the crucifixion to ensure that Jesus had a proper burial.  So – maybe our rational, and pragmatic and everything needs to be seen to be believed Pharisee did mull over all that Jesus had said in the dark that night.  Maybe over the months that followed it all made a little more sense.  Or maybe – just maybe - Nicodemus just heard the wind blow on Jesus’ day of execution, and almost like something he could not quite control (but inherently trusted), found himself drawn to Golgotha, there to minister to the poorest of them all and to perform a small act of compassion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Luke 24:45-53 "Beaam Me Up, Scotty"

SHOW STAR TREK CLIP - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ODrdBEztyY
         Even in our modern day, Jesus stands in good company when it comes to unusual ways of departing from this earth.  For him, it meant severing his physical connection to the disciples while at the same time cementing that bond eternally with God.  In Star Trek, this sort of exiting is fondly recalled by the line that was never actually used in the original television series: “Beam me up, Scotty”. 
         Here in the church, we call Jesus’ exit simply the ascension.  It is that rationally impossible, pragmatically inconceivable, fantastically incomprehensible event that the Gospel writer of Luke includes in his narrative to end the story – in addition to beginning its sequel, which is the Book of Acts.
         The Gospel writer positions the ascension forty days after Easter, which, for us in 2018, would be last Thursday.  Let’s look back for a minute however.  Remember?  The despairing women had found the tomb empty on Easter morning.  No one, of course, believed their cockamamie story that Jesus was alive.
         Then the extraordinary appearances started happening.  And for the next nearly six weeks, through those appearances, Jesus tried to prove to his followers that, first, he really did die, and, second, neither was his body stolen, nor was he returning as a ghost to chide them for their abject failures or just to wander aimlessly about in this world, unable for some reason to move on to whatever it is that comes next.
         These astounding appearance stories are scattered throughout the final chapters in all four Gospels.  In each of them, Jesus goes to great lengths to convince his followers that he lives, albeit in a mysterious way that neither he – nor we – will ever fully understand. 
         And so we find him slipping through keyholes into locked upper rooms located down winding side streets and back alleys in Jerusalem.  Once inside, he offers peace to a bunch of his friends who feared more for their own lives than for his in the days surrounding his gruesome execution.  He even allows Thomas, who insists more than the others on visceral proof, allows him to touch his scarred hands and poke around inside the spear wound on his side. 
       He cooks breakfast on a beach  - and nibbles on freshly broiled fish prepared in that same upper room. One time he looks like the cemetery gardener.  Another time, he passes for a fellow traveler as he listens compassionately to Cleopas and his sidekick on the road to Emmaus and then breaks bread with them at suppertime – only to vanish when they finally recognize who he is. 
         And when those forty days filled with intentional appearances are up, according to the Gospel writer of Luke, Jesus gathers his disciples about them and one last time instructs them on the meaning of the Jewish Holy Scriptures.  However, this time was unlike all the other teachable moments when his followers just did not get it, all those times over the past three years of his ministry when no matter what Jesus told Peter, James, John, and the others, they could not comprehend who he was and what he stood for. 
         As Episcopal priest David Sellery notes, “Luke describes one of the truly transformative events in human history. Suddenly it all made sense. Jesus had told them over and over that he had not come to overthrow God’s covenant but to fulfill it. He was the answer to the prophet’s prayers. He was literally the embodiment of God’s love.
      
How many times had (Jesus) taught this to these unschooled manual laborers? How many times had they struggled to understand? Now they knew the answer. They knew Jesus as they had never known him before.”
         According to the Gospel of Luke then, the disciples got it this time - finally.  They got that Jesus embodied in his own person God’s dream for a world that was founded on justice and grounded in reconciliation and compassion – no matter how far from those noble ideals their world seemed to be.  They got that Jesus was everything God wanted them to be:  loving, kind, outwardly focused.  They got that they were the ones challenged to preach and live that message of love to people everywhere for all their days. They got that Jesus was daring them to dance again – with new steps and a new rhythm.  
         And we know they got it because here we are more than 2000 years later still sitting in church on Sunday morning when we could be doing a host of other things.  Here we are still envisioning God’s dream for the world - a world founded on justice and grounded in reconciliation and compassion.  Here we are – knowing that Jesus is everything God wants us to be:  loving, kind, outwardly focused.  Here we are  - knowing that we are the ones challenged to preach and live that message of love to people everywhere for all our days. Here we are - knowing that Jesus is daring us to dance again with new steps and a new rhythm. Here we are still listening for the pulsing beat of love, still daring to dance where Jesus leads, still striving to wrap our minds around him and all that he stood for. 
         And when (or perhaps because) they finally understand, Jesus invites his disciples to come on out to Bethany, a village about a mile and a half east of the Jerusalem city gate, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives.  And there in the fading light of day as the shadows inched their way across the land, we are told that Jesus raises his arms and blesses these folks who are his closest friends. 
         I like to think his hands touched each one of them – just as his hands had once touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute and gave them sight and speech, just as his hands had once touched the lifeless hand of a little girl and a mother’s only son and brought them back to life, just as his hands had once reached out to grab hold of Peter when he was close to drowning in a stormy sea, and once, in what seemed now a lifetime ago, when his hands lifted up a little boy’s lunch of bread and fish and fed 5000 people.
         And there in the shadow of the Mount of Olives, Jesus blessed his disciples and, in doing so, brought the lives they had shared together full circle.  Forgiveness was complete.  Healing was complete.  The dance steps had been taught.  The words had been spoken: 
Now I've had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
Yes I swear; it's the truth…

         Then he gives them their final instruction:  Go back to Jerusalem, he says, and wait.  Wait for the Holy Spirit – for it will come.  And when it does, watch out! 
         Its power will make your heart burn like it is on fire.  Its strength will feel like a mighty wind that will knock your socks off.  It will grab you and toss you and shake you – and through it all, you will find that you cannot stop your feet from tapping.  Its pulsing beat of joy and rhythm of love will overtake you – and, with the Spirit as your partner, you will dare to dance again.
         And then, the Gospel writer tells us, Jesus ascended to heaven, as the creeds declare, to sit at the right hand of God.  “Beam me up, Scotty.” Yes - Jesus is in good company.  Not only is there Star Trek, but there is also Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz who leaves as a glowing pink ball, with the munchkins cheerfully waving goodbye.
         Yes, Jesus is in good company – Biblically speaking as well.  There is Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who rode off into eternity in a flaming chariot, and there is Enoch, great-grandfather of Noah, who, mythology has it, fathered Methuselah and went on to live for 365 years before moving in with God.
         But really, face it!  What ever are we – in our post-modern metaphysical days - to do with this rationally impossible, pragmatically inconceivable, fantastically incomprehensible tale that we have the hutzpah to compare to a 365 year old man who sired a son who lived to be 969 years, a flaming chariot, a beloved science fiction TV series, and a good witch?
         For me, this is one of those stories where I have to look beyond its historical verification.  It is a story where, for me, literal truth is really immaterial because there are deeper truths that are so much more important, deeper truths that end up being hidden when we dwell on the story’s historical accuracy – or lack thereof. 
         There are at least three certainties we can tease from this story of the ascension.  First, Jesus left his disciples with a mission, a mission that has been told and retold for over 2000 years until it has come to us.  When Jesus blesses his followers on that last day in that last chapter in the Gospel of Luke, he commissions them to be his hands and feet in the world.  They are to love rather than fear.  They are to forgive rather than resent.  They are to welcome rather than turn away. They are to serve rather than be first in line. 
         In short, they are to be the church because that is what the church is supposed to be about – loving, forgiving, welcoming, serving.  And so it is for us.  Jesus commissions us to be the church – to be loving as he was loving, to be forgiving as he was forgiving, to be radically welcoming as he was welcoming, to serve as he served.     And if that seems so much more than we can ever do or be, then take note of what one blogger I read this week wrote: “It remains for us to realize that the power that is at work within us is the same power by which Christ was raised from the dead.”  We are challenged to really be the church and to dare to dance again.
         Second, Jesus did not leave his disciples bereft, alone to figure out the ins and outs of being the church – nor does he leave us that way either.  The Holy Spirit is coming, he told them. 
         The Holy Spirit has come, he would tell us.  It is waiting in the wings, here, right here, to tap within us the rhythm we need to keep on dancing.  If we forget the steps, the Spirit will teach them to us again and again and again.  If we stumble or feel like we have two left feet, she will lead us back to the dance floor again and again and again.  If we find ourselves as wallflowers or hiding in a corner, she will extend her hand to be our partner and dare us to dance again and again and again. 
         And finally, one last thing we learn from this story of the ascension is that it is an opportunity to re-imagine heaven, which was where, in the story, Jesus went. Lutheran pastor Luke Bouman puts it this way, “The problem is that we think of heaven as another place, as there are places in the world. If Jesus ascends to heaven, then he must go to that other place, is the logic that many might follow. But that does not appear to be the case.
       In Luke’s Gospel, the Kingdom of God, what many people assume to be heaven is portrayed not so much as a reality in a different place (located up in the sky somewhere) but rather is God’s future that in Christ’s death and resurrection has broken into the present. Understood this way, we have a new possibility.”
         I like that idea of heaven: God’s future – God’s dream – broken into the present through the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  I like it because that is what Easter and the Easter season is all about.  
         Heaven is within our grasp (How exciting is that!) because the power of love has overcome even the power of death.  Because that is so, the future is now safe in Jesus’ hands (How comforting is that!)
         Such is our hope for tomorrow, and it is a hope that surely has the potential to give us courage for today – courage to do more than just sing hymns and listen to sermons on Sunday morning, courage to begin to bridge the political divide and find common ground with those who see life differently than we do, courage to try our hand at filling the emptiness that lies all around us, courage to mend broken lives with forgiveness, courage to stand up and speak out against injustice, courage to be peacemakers, courage to dare to dance again – to dance as the church into God’s future, whatever it might be.