Absence and Presence
2008-04-30 by Tom Steagald
I suggest that anyone dealing with Ascension read the seventh chapter of N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope. He maintains that a spiritualized sense of Ascension, rooting perhaps in a spiritualized or Platonic notion of Resurrection (and the two doctrines are both interlocked and yet separate truths) leads to all sorts of problems, theological and missional. Not least, it robs Incarnation of its import--Jesus' body was incidental to his essential or real identity.
The affirmation and celebration of Ascension (yes, we need a day!) lets us affirm that, while Jesus is perceived as absent, and is in fact absent, Jesus is sacramentally, missionally and universally present in ways we often do not recognize. He says that our residual Enlightenment notion of space as a receptacle (we have traded a three-storied universe for a one-story ranch style!) robs us of the belief and consequence of Heaven and Earth being tangentially related in such a way that Jesus can be and is simultaneously present to all people in all places.
This understanding of the Ascension also gives the Sacraments their fuller significance and meaning.
For my part, I am still dealing with Ascension and the National Day of Prayer.
Do We Need Another Reminder That Jesus is Gone?
2008-04-30 by Michael Usey
Ascension Sunday is the only Sunday of the church year that we commemorate (celebrate doesn’t seem like the right word) that Jesus is no longer with us, as my daughter would say, with skin on. I like Ascension Sunday, because it accurately describes how it feels to be Christian at times, strangely alone and with a deep longing for more of God. As Bruce Cockburn sings, There must be more... more... More current more spark, More touch deep in the heart, Not more thoughtless cruelty, Not more being this lonely... [“More, Not More,” from the album Humans, 1980].
But do we really need a Sunday to remind us that he is not here? Is it not painfully clear to us that Christ is absent, that the one we yearn for is not present? The one whom we follow has not returned yet, as he promised. All of the New Testament writers, Paul especially—and perhaps Jesus himself—thought his return was imminent, next Tuesday at the latest. So should we really have a Sunday devoted to absence, especially his?
Well, yes, it seems like an excellent idea, actually. For several reasons, as I said. First, it gives voice to our yearning, our hunger for things unknown, our longing for more of God than we have. There must be more... more.. More songs more warmth, More love more life, Not more fear not more fame,Not more money not more games. [again, Bruce Cockburn]
Secondly, as Barbara Brown Taylor has observed, absence isn’t nothing. Absence is something, a vacuum longing to filled. My wife loves to walk, and especially in the fine woods of Starmount Forest near our home, around Hamilton Lakes. I don’t think she feels right about the world unless she has walked that day 3 miles in nature, and she is determined to do so most every day—even if the weather is bad, or rainy. She adores being in the wood, noticing trees and birds. The die-hard birders in the neighborhood know her by name. She will say to me after a deluge, “It’s stopped raining—want to go on a quick walk with me?” with the rain clouds looking pregnant and mencing, a fermata before they burst again. It can be trying, coming home from a long day at work, and being cajored by your wife into a long walk in the twilight.
Then last winter we spent about two weeks apart, when I was in Romania, and I thought I would get a break from walks, but instead I began to itch to walk in the neighborhood around the church—in the winter, in the cold, and in the city. My missionary friend Ralph was there with me, or I never could have gone, and it wasn’t yet as cold as it would be. So we walked briskly in the early morning—amidst wonderful sights: old women sweeping dirt stoops, packs of feral dogs, and odd tiny shops that sold hot drinks. And I took it all in, wanting to share it with my wife. I must remember this, and tell her. Ha, what would she say to that sight? She was not there, so I was seeing them for her. She was absent—or was she? At the very least she was present in me.
Lastly, Ascension Sunday is a good reminder that, if we are looking for Jesus in the flesh, we need only to look around, instead of looking up. The fine truth is that Christ with skin is the firefighter in my church who painted my door without anyone asking, the special ed teacher who checks in my son at his high school on her own, the yoga teacher who gave a chuck of change to the food backpack program that feeds hungry kids over weekends: these and countless others are Christ to me and the world. Maybe Jesus is not gone but only widely dispersed. Maybe Jesus is not so much MIA as he is alive and well in the hearts and hands of his followers.
Michael Usey, Mary, Acts, Cliff-Hanger
2008-04-29 by David von Schlichten
Our guest blogger is stirring up the waters in the tub, thanks be to God. Scroll down to read his three, splashing blog entries.
I find especially stimulating the idea of Mary as Theodoulos, the servant of Christ, a disciple. Also, I appreciate Michael's criticism of the lectionary fixating on Acts during Easter to the neglect of the Old Testament.
I am contemplating a sermon that focuses on the theme of unity in the readings. The disciples, including Mary, are united in their worship as they await Pentecost. Jesus prays for the disciples to be one. I could lift this oneness and then rhapsodize about the unifying power of Holy Communion, which joins us to one another and, more importantly, to God.
Also, occasionally I have a cliff-hanger ending to my sermon. This Sunday. I may build toward Pentecost and, just before the big, blazing, unifying moment, stop the sermon, to be continued next Sunday.
I welcome feedback, trusting that the Spirit is at work here in the hot tub, and I am ever
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Rethinking the "There are No Stupid Questions" Rubric
2008-04-28 by Michael Usey
Just how demoralizing might it have been for Jesus when he heard the disciples’ final question in Act 1.6: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Here he is on the train platform, about to board, his hand on the handhold, and his closest friends in the world ask him one last question that shows they have understood little of what he’s said: So is now the time that you’re going to kick the Romans out of the promised land and restore the kingdom? No, actually, guys, this is when I leave, and the earthly kingdom is not the current plan. Luke doesn’t say he let out a heavy sigh, but it’s not hard to believe he did.
I’ve never thought that leaving the whole gospel thing in our hands was a good idea, that Jesus’ plan to have his disciples spread the gospel by being good news and telling it too, but there you have it. I wonder if it seemed like a good idea to Jesus right then.
One of things I like about the disciples is that they never seemed to know what Jesus was going to say or do next. And often, when he did say something, they totally misunderstood him. I can so identity with them trying to follow but still being confused and clueless. I didn’t mind the WWJD campaign years ago (built as it was on Shelton’s book In His Steps), but the fatal flaw of asking yourself what would Jesus do is that his own disciples would have never answered that question correctly. He was entirely unpredictable to them: they would shoo children away, and he would welcome them. Like Rebecca Manly Pippert has said, Jesus was both delightful and disturbing—and probably the most frustrating person who has ever lived. And Jesus seemed to go out of his way to make the religious of his day angry with him, calling them stinking tombs and such. His disciples never could predict what Jesus would say or do, at least not on that side of Pentecost. After Pentecost they would start to do and say some of the same things he did. Which of course is one of Luke’s points in Acts, that Jesus’ disciples start to sound and act like him, after they are filled with the spirit.
One time when Jesus was saying things the disciples don’t understand they asked Jesus, Who are you? And, in one of my favorite verses in our Bible, Jesus answered back, Why do I speak to you at all? (John 8.25). A really good question, actually, that echoes down through all of his followers through the ages.
Of course, his leaving was part of the plan, I think. No longer would he be in just one place, but now through the spirit he would everywhere at once. In this, he didn’t so much depart as he atomized and spread to be everywhere and in everyone who would have him.
Something more about Mary
2008-04-28 by Michael Usey
There is a Greek Orthodox Church a quarter of a mile away from my home named Dormition of the Theotokos. Dormition of course coming from the same Latin root as dormitory, a place to sleep, means “falling asleep,” hence as euphemism for death. Theotokos is, as most of you know, the wonderful term meaning “God-bearer,” the Orthodox honorific title for Mary. The church’s name, Dormition of the Theotokos means, the church of Mary falling asleep, or Mary’s Death church. While it’s a fine congregation, it may not be the name most church growth specialists would recommend (“Things are really hoppin’ this Easter at Mary’s Death church!” Or “You belong in Mary’s Death Church.”). However, I don’t think Mary’s death is not the best thing about her.
We preachers have not always known what to do with Mary, when we have thought about her at all. The text is this week gives us an excellent entry into the best thing about Mary. As a teenager, perhaps as young as 12 years old, she receives Gabriel’s incredible message. She bears the scorn of an unmarried pregnancy, and the whispers about whom Jesus’ father might be. Mary looks for him when he was lost at the temple, and takes note of his smart retort to Joseph when they find him; she prompts him at the wedding at Cana despite his protests. She is there at the cross, and her grief is our pieta.
But the best and last we know about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she becomes his disciple. The highest and best thing we can say about Mary is not that she gave birth and nurture to the messiah, but that she eventually came to understand that her son was the Christ, and chose to follow him (Acts 1.14). At one point in Mark’s story of Jesus, Mary and his brother are there, outside of the house in which Jesus is preaching, in order to take him home, presumably because they thought he was a few clowns short of a circus. But she (and his brothers) overcame her questions and became his follower. The best thing about Mary is that she becomes a follower of her son, the Christ. Not just Theotokos, but—even better—Theodoulos, God’s servant.
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