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.
February 28, 2021
When I was in middle school, I started to become fascinated by the popular kids. I would watch them and wonder how they managed to be surrounded by people all the time, how they were able to influence so many of those people. At the time I didn’t know any of the sociological concepts of status or power or influence, but I had my hunches about how those things worked.
Don’t worry. As I made my way through high school and got more comfortable in my own nerdy skin, I had good friends and got involved in plenty of things I found fun, from marching band to math team. From time to time I still wondered what gave those kids at the top of the high school food chain so much power. What drew other people to them like moths to a flame? Eventually I decided that those people who flocked to be near the popular kids wanted some kind of power-by-association. They longed for a portion of the status that those kids held so effortlessly.
Now I certainly don’t think Jesus was about power or status in the traditional sense, but I wonder if the disciples wanted that same kind of power-by-association. They had certainly watched Jesus do some amazing things. He had cast out demons and healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, and the sick with a touch or a word. He had walked on water and calmed a storm and fed thousands. His preaching and teaching attracted a crowd, and those crowds clamored after Jesus wherever he went.
Not long after today’s gospel the disciples will reveal just how much they long for some power and status of their own. They’ll get caught by Jesus arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (9:33-34). James and John at one point will ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and on his left when he comes into glory, and you better believe that ticked off the rest of the disciples (10:35-45). Jesus keeps reminding them that he has come not to be served, but to serve – and that they are likewise called to be servants of all. But they don’t always want to hear that part.
Sometimes the disciples seem to get it right. Just minutes before today’s gospel, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had nailed the right answer: “You are the Messiah.” Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one sent by God to save the world. But Peter also freaks out when Jesus tells his followers that he will suffer and be killed. Peter does not want to hear that difficult truth, and Jesus has some harsh words for him. Peter probably is setting his mind on human things more than divine ones. Peter understandably wants Jesus to use his power and his popularity to avoid the terrible fate that Jesus describes. What’s the point of having that power if not to summon an army to one’s defense?
It’s not enough that Jesus refuses to use his power in the way that the disciples expect. It’s that he also makes it clear that he wants them to follow in his path of service and sacrifice. He says: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This hardly seems like a winning recruitment slogan. Take up your cross. Remember that at this point the listeners know the cross only as an instrument of execution used by the Roman Empire to silence anyone who seemed like a political threat.
Jesus is essentially saying: “If you follow me, be prepared to give up what you really want. Be prepared to give your whole life. Be prepared to die.”
For most of us that would have been the moment when we said, “All right, Jesus. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but I’ll be going back home now. Good luck to you!”
What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to lose their lives for his sake? I don’t think he means that we should become doormats. He certainly doesn’t mean that we must endure abuse or harassment in our relationships. This passage has sometimes been used to justify that kind of suffering in the face of abuse, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.
The life to which Jesus calls his disciples – the life to which he calls us – is one of sacrificial love. It means getting up each day and looking for the ways that we can be of service to the people in our lives – family, friends, strangers, people in need near and far. And to offer that service as much as is possible with a loving heart. Not resentfully. Not by keeping score. Simply giving all that we can, freely and graciously.
Some days we would rather not take up the cross in that way. The cost feels too great. It often means, as Jesus says, that we deny ourselves. We set aside our own preferences and priorities for the sake of others. And of course we sometimes long to bask in a little glory – to get some recognition for our labors – or maybe to wallow in our own martyrdom, certain that no one else has given as much as we have. Jesus reminds us not to wait around for that kind of affirmation from the world. That’s not what matters.
Peter understandably gets upset when Jesus talks about suffering and dying. But Peter seems to miss a really important detail. Jesus says he will suffer and be killed and after three days rise again. Maybe that’s too crazy for Peter to imagine, but it reveals an important truth. Death is not the end of the story. Suffering and sacrifice are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. There is also an empty tomb.
It’s that triumph of life over death that holds us up as we seek to embody God’s own sacrificial love in our lives. And there are so many ways to live that love. Think about the places it shows up. We take up the cross when we care for a baby, feeding and rocking and changing that little one in spite of the sleep and sanity we are losing. We take up the cross when we care for aging parents and other older folks in our lives – calling and checking in and helping them get connected to a vaccine and – when possible to do safely – visiting in person. Parents take up a cross when you allow your teenager another chance to have some freedom, even though it’s terrifying. Teenagers, you take up a cross when you help a friend avoid doing something stupid and potentially life-threatening. We take up a cross when we give from our resources of time and money to feed the hungry in our community. We take up the cross when we speak out against the racism and violence that people of color experience every day, when we work to dismantle those forms of oppression.
In all the ways we take up the cross, we do so because love is a gift. A gift that we have received from God beyond our deserving and can’t help but share.
Theologian Richard Lischer reminds us that when Martin Luther went searching for what kind of God we have, he realized that we can look at the cross. On the cross we see God’s truest self. In a world where gracelessness is the norm and grace the exception, in a world where hate and greed and white supremacy attack the dignity of human beings, it’s important to tell the truth about Jesus – that Jesus gives himself to defy those forces of evil.[i]
And so we try to live with that same kind of love, overflowing with gratitude for what we have first been given. In Lischer’s words: “For the best liberators are those who have been liberated. The best lovers are those who know what it is to be loved. The best forgivers are those whose sins have been forgiven.”
So, people of God, take up the cross this week. Live as those who are liberated, loved, forgiven. Because that is who you are. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ