May 23, 2021
As is our tradition here at Gloria Dei, the sermon this morning is addressed particularly to you. As always, I invite everyone else who is here with us in person or online to listen in for a word of hope for you too.
I watched a fascinating short film called “Wearable Tracy” this week.[i] It’s about a woman named Kim who launched a year-long project kind of on a whim. It started on the day that Facebook reminded her that it was her friend Tracy’s birthday. Kim felt bad that she hadn’t gotten Tracy a gift, so she decided to improvise a little. She bought a bunch of pipe cleaners from a nearby dollar store, and she fashioned them into a wild and elaborate kind of hat. She took a picture of herself wearing this crazy birthday crown and sent it to Tracy with happy birthday wishes.
Then Kim started walking around the city while still wearing this wacky headgear. Kim is normally a person who likes to remain anonymous. She does not like to attract attention to herself. But on this day she couldn’t help but attract that attention. She noticed how people stared at her, but how they also struck up conversations with her that she normally wouldn’t have had. That’s when she decided to try making what she called a “wearable Tracy” – a new creative headpiece – every day for a year.
The project had three rules: she had to twist fresh pipe cleaners into a brand-new design every morning; she had to wear the piece all day long (from nine to five); and she had to ask the name of anyone who spoke to her about her hat, even if she wasn’t feeling particularly talkative. She found that this project helped her connect with so many complete strangers in a way she never would have been able to do before. She said: “The fear of judgment turned into ‘Who am I going to meet today?’”
I think about how the disciples must have felt on that first Pentecost long ago. They were doing what Jesus had told them to do – waiting in Jerusalem for this Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised would show up. And suddenly there’s this rush of a violent wind, and now they have some unexpected headgear – tongues of fire hovering above their heads. These friends and followers of Jesus, who honestly would have preferred to stay unnoticed at this point, are now the center of everyone’s attention.
And that’s when the Spirit does something else – giving the disciples this power to communicate in the native languages of all the people gathered there. No matter where you were from, you could understand what the disciples were saying about this person named Jesus and what Jesus had done and taught. The Spirit makes possible these new connections in ways the disciples never imagined.
Notice the two very different ways that the people in the crowd respond to what the disciples are sharing. Some people get really snarky and dismissive. They accuse the disciples of being drunk, even though it’s pretty early in the morning. Others in the crowd stay in a more curious place, asking “What does this mean?”
As you probably already know, when we live our faith – or just live our lives – there will always be voices that will be dismissive, just like those people who said the disciples were drunk. Those voices will try to tell you that you’ll never be successful, that you’re not enough, that you need to look differently or act differently or be a different person altogether.
When you encounter those moments where people are doubting you – or perhaps when you are doubting yourself – I want you to remember two important things from this Pentecost story.
First, I hope you will remember to stay curious. Ask the question that other people in the Pentecost crowd ask: What does this mean? What does it mean that this person is dismissing me? What does this mean about their lives or the ways they’ve been hurt? Ask that same question in other parts of life, as you encounter new experiences and continue to figure out your relationships with the important people in your life. And of course keep asking that question about the Bible and about God and about faith. What does this mean? Stay curious. Stay open. May your fear of being judged turn into “Who am I going to meet today? Who am I going to see in a new way today? Who am I going to help today?”
The other thing I want you to remember is what Peter preaches in that short sermon of his: The Spirit is given to all flesh – all people – of every age, race, background, culture, language, family situation, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental or physical health, or anything else that makes people uniquely themselves. All people. No exceptions.
Peter reminds people that everyone – young and old – will see visions and dream dreams. Everyone gets to dream.
You have important dreams and visions – for yourself, for the church, for the world. You’ve told me that you want to make a positive change in the world, no matter how small. You want to make our community, our country, our world better. You want for everyone to respect one another, for there to be peace, for the world to become more accepting and less harsh. You want an end to crime, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the things that traumatize people. You want an end to world hunger, and you want churches to help people in need.
Those dreams and visions you have named are God’s dreams and visions too. And God has given all of us the gifts and the courage to make those visions real.
In the gospel Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. Here’s the ultimate truth: God loves you more than you can ever comprehend. No ruler, no scale can measure it. No equation or smartphone can calculate it. God’s love for you has been there from the beginning. It was there when you were baptized all those years ago. It’s here with you now this morning as you are confirmed. And it will be with you for all of your days to come, no matter what. Even when it might feel far away – more of a flicker than a tongue of flame – it’s always, always around you and in you.
That love will hold you as you move forward, as you dream your dreams and discover some new ones. As you pursue your visions for a more just and loving world. As you, with the Spirit’s urging, set the world on fire. Amen. S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa
[i] You can read about the project and watch the documentary short here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-documentary/wearable-tracy-and-connections-forged-through-funky-hats?utm_campaign=likeshopme&client_service_id=31202&utm_social_type=owned&utm_brand=tny&service_user_id=1.78e+16&utm_content=instagram-bio-link&utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&client_service_name=the%20new%20yorker&supported_service_name=instagram_publishing
May 16, 2021
Poet Nikki Finney quotes a postcard that fellow writer Toni Cade Bambara sent from Philadelphia in October of 1995 as Toni was lying in her hospice bed during the final days of her life. She wrote: “Do not leave the arena to the fools.”
Do not leave the arena to the fools. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s what Jesus thought to himself during the time between his resurrection and his ascension. He knew that he must leave his disciples – or at least his flesh and blood self must leave them. He knew that he had work for them to do. And he loved them. He loved them more than we can understand. But he also knew them. He knew that they had run scared the night of his trial and crucifixion. He knew they had pretty much been hiding in fear since his resurrection. Even before all of that intensity, he had heard them squabble among themselves about who would be the greatest. Did he ever shake his head and wonder if he was leaving the arena to the fools?
The word “fools” might be a little harsh. More likely they were all still traumatized. Even from their hiding places in the shadowy corners, the disciples had seen the brutality inflicted upon Jesus, the whipping and the driving of nails through his hands and feet and the piercing of his side with a sword, blood and water running out. They had seen truly awful things, things that you don’t just forget. Their trauma has made them uncertain about what to do next.
The trauma hasn’t completely made them forget their earthly ambitions. We hear those in the question they ask Jesus just before he floats away: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this when you will finally give us what we need to be a powerful nation that can conquer our enemies and be free of the Roman Empire?
Jesus dismisses those ideas but promises them that they will receive a different kind of power. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for that power to appear. In the Acts story his final words to them are these: “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.”
And that’s when Jesus ascends. He is carried up in the sky. Up, up, and away. Who can blame the disciples for looking up? It’s what any of us would do.
The Spirit is about to show up in wild and unexpected ways. That’s our story for Pentecost next week. But for now the disciples wait. They wait. They watch. They wonder.
The disciples are in a time of transition. It’s a turning point from the season in which they had watched the ministry of Jesus unfold. They saw it up close. How he healed people with a touch. How he brought Lazarus back from the dead. How he fed thousands with crumbs. How he calmed the storm. They heard his stories – of reckless sons forgiven, of lost sheep found, of water that would never run out.
Now it’s their turn. They’re the ones who will have to do the teaching and the healing and the seeking out of the lost and the lonely. They must now become the storytellers – of all they have seen Jesus do and of all that the Spirit will now empower them to do in Jesus’ name. They must be his witnesses – in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Starting from Jerusalem and heading out into the whole world with a kind of spiritual centrifugal force. They will tell the story of the messiah who was not at all the way they expected the messiah to be.
No wonder those strange men dressed in white robes say to the disciples: ““Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They’re reminding the disciples that Jesus has told them what to do. They have their assignment. Wait here for the Spirit. Get ready to head out to every corner of the world to share the good news of the One who lived and died for all of us, the One who has defeated death.
I find it so fitting that we are reading these particular texts on this particular weekend. We are at a turning point too. After a long period of worry and fear and trauma, we are now able to anticipate the next season, one that we believe will be more hopeful and healing. Like the disciples, our fear doesn’t immediately go away. Nor does the grief or the worry. We all know people who have died during this time, either from COVID or from something else. Our ways of grieving for these beloved people – our rituals for burying the dead – have been disrupted.
But we have a job to do, Jesus says. We’re called to tell the story, the story of hope in the midst of fear. We are called to live the story, the story of this limitless love that Jesus has shown us. Jesus reminds us not to let our vision be too narrow.
Things will be different in our world and in our lives. Some things will be different at church. We’re not yet sure about all the ways that things will be different, but we can’t help but be changed by what we have been through. The story of Jesus ascending reminds us not simply to stare longingly at what has been, but to get ready for what will be, even if we can’t yet imagine it.
Jesus knows that the transition from the crucifixion life to the resurrection life is not an easy one to make. He’s patient with the disciples, and he’s patient with us as we learn from him how to live in a new way. Theologian Willie James Jennings observes that we are always drawn by God to our future. He writes, “For some of us that drawing will not take us away from what we have lost or what we feel or what we see. But for others that drawing will mean leaving behind such loss, if it would be an obstacle to our moving toward what God wants to do in and through us.”[i]
Think for a moment about a loss of the last year. Something you can never get back – time with someone dear to you, milestones in your school or work or family life, trips and celebrations that had to be postponed or canceled. It’s OK still to grieve what has been lost.
Now think about a gratitude from the last year, however large or small. Something you never could have imagined would emerge as a gift but has in fact touched your heart. It’s OK to honor what has been a blessing, even though an uninvited one.
I for one share Paul’s gratitude as he writes it to the Ephesians when he says: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
The hope to which he has called all of us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Acts by Willie James Jennings (from the series: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 20.