Seventh Sunday of Easter
from the book
Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle A
Sam "Golden Rule" Jones had "quittin' meetings" for those converted at his revivals. These meetings were to get people to confess their sins (cussing, drinking, gambling, and so on) and then have everyone pledge to quit their sinning. At one of these meetings, a lady was asked what she was going to quit. She said she had not been doing anything and was going to quit doing that. Perhaps it's time for us to quit doing nothing!
One of the oldest tricks in the book for mischief--minded big--city kids is to stand on a street corner, craning necks back to look at some non--existent phenomenon in the sky, just to see how many people you can influence to follow your gaze upwards. The temptation is almost irresistible.
Last Thursday was the day of the Ascension of the Lord, being forty days after his resurrection.
The First Reading is Luke's version of the Ascension. Notice the difference in character between the disciples of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Day and thereafter. They are gathering strength and faith for the birth of the church, which will happen in ten days on Pentecost. Notice also that this is the first mention of Jesus' mother and brothers as being among the believers. Before this, they opposed Jesus' teaching.
What were the disciples feeling, as they looked up at Jesus ascending into heaven? Did they wonder what he saw, looking down at them looking up? There, he's gone from us. Our leader, our mentor, the power of God among us. Now what? We can write the Gospels, but that's living in the past. We're looking up, but how can we look ahead? What does the future hold for us, without our leader? Do we just stand around, looking up, waiting to see who will look up with us, to see what it is that has our attention on the sky and not on the ground?
They were probably feeling adventurous and hopeless. Schools are getting out now, and high schools and colleges are holding graduation ceremonies. Most of them don't call it that. Usually they call it "Commencement." Because you never really graduate from learning. Or from life. You commence, or begin, a new phase. It's exhilarating, but it's also scary. The security of the past is behind you, but the possibilities of the future are ahead of you. The things you depended on aren't there anymore, leaving a void. But you can fill that void with unlimited potential.
The disciples were not graduating from school. They did have similar feelings of dislocation. They asked one of the oldest and most deeply religious questions in the world: "What now?" It is a two--word question that is not only curious about the future, but wonders if there will even be a future. What now? Now that we are all grown up, what now? Think of the times in life when this is one of the most appropriate questions to be asked: I've graduated from high school or college; what now? I'm married; what now? I'm baptized; what now? I'm hired! What now? I've built my dream home; what now?
"Why do you stand looking into the sky?" We are on the brink of a great adventure, but we face great risks, and we begin with the ambiguity of grief at losing our leader.
We have an ambiguous day before us. Mother's Day.
Today's celebration really goes back to the protest movements of the '70s and has it deepest roots in a certain protest that happened in 1872. Yes, I'm talking about Mother's Day. But we need to go back even further, to 1861 and the Civil War, and a hymn in our hymnal.
In December, 1861, six months after the Civil War began, Julia Ward Howe and her husband traveled to Washington with Governor and Mrs. Andrews of Massachusetts. During the journey, she heard troops along the road singing "John Brown's body lies a--mouldering in the grave," and was reminded of this fine tune. James Freeman Clarke, her pastor and a member of the traveling group, suggested that she write more fitting words. Mrs. Howe completed them that same night, and showed them to Dr. Clarke a day or so later. The Atlantic Monthly issue of February, 1862, printed the poem of the power and action of God in the world.
Then, in Boston, in September, 1870, Julia Ward Howe gave a speech which lead to her "Mother's Day for Peace" movement. It was titled:"Appeal To Womanhood Throughout The World." Her speech was a one--sided indictment of male bloodthirstiness. Mrs. Howe called for women to arise and demand disarmament.
The day she called for was held in 1872 in Boston.
Julia Ward Howe instituted Mother's Day as a peace rally event, asking mothers of her day to meet in public to protest war and violence - her thinking was that mothers would be opposed to anything that threatened their children. The day has changed some from Howe's vision, which really involved mothers accepting responsibility for the world because of their children, and not children honoring mothers.
By 1908, Anna Jarvis was advocating that all mothers be honored on the second Sunday in May, and in 1912 the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized the day and raised it to the national agenda.
I hope you see the inconsistency. The day that Julia Ward Howe called for mothers to do something mothering has become, on our calendar, a day for others to do something for mothers.
Add to this a heightened awareness that there are those who have had bad experiences with mothers, and those who may have wished to be mothers but for one reason or another never became mothers, and that there are those mothers who have lost children.
That doesn't mean that we stop pointing to it. These days it's popular to trash and bash the good things that can be, to dirty up what should be shiny and clean, to make heroes look to be villains. Instead we should lift up the good, whatever is good in anyone or anything, and celebrate it for what it can be.
Not all mothers are good, but motherhood is good. Don't you think?
What an ambiguous sort of occasion this is! - a happy day for some of us, sad and troubling for others, for a whole host of reasons.
And what an ambiguous sort of occasion the Ascension of Jesus is! On the one hand, it says he is among us still, and will be until the end of time, and sends his power among us in the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, it asks, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? There is discipling to be done." You have been given the experience of the living Lord and the power of his Holy Spirit for a purpose. His purpose. And that purpose is to build the world--wide and ages--wide church of Jesus Christ.
If all you do is look up in the sky and wonder, "What next," you're getting a free ride.
Back when the West was being settled, the major means of transportation was the stagecoach. You've seen passengers riding in stagecoaches in western movies. What you might not know is that the stagecoach had three different kinds of tickets - first class, second class, and third class. If you had a first--class ticket, that meant you could remain seated during the entire trip no matter what happened. If the stagecoach got stuck in the mud, or had trouble making it up a steep hill, or even if a wheel fell off, you could remain seated because you had a first--class ticket.
If you had a second--class ticket, you also could remain seated - until there was a problem. In case of a problem, second--class ticket holders would have to get off until the problem was resolved. You could stand off to the side and watch as other people worked. You didn't have to get your hands dirty. But second--class ticket holders were not allowed to stay on board. When the stagecoach was unstuck you would get back on and take your seat.
If you had a third--class ticket, you would definitely have to get off if there was a problem. Why? Because it was your responsibility to help solve the problem. You had to get out and push or help lift to fix a broken wheel or whatever was needed because you only had a third--class ticket.
The disciples of Jesus stood looking into heaven, Luke says, but then he lists their names like we should recognize them, and he names his book, Acts. Actions. Deeds. Doings. They didn't just stand around looking into heaven. And neither should we. Isn't it time we quit doing nothing?