Week in the Word — Be The Church: One at Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

lifes journeyThis is the message I preached on Sunday, June 16th,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Sermon “Be the Church: Disciples who are One at Baptism and the  Table.”


Genesis 18:1-8

The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2 He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.

3 “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4 Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5 And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”

“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”

6 So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7 Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8 When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.


We continue our series, “Be the Church” today, exploring values of a vibrant church taken from the book of Acts..  I will be reading Acts 2:37-47 from the New Living Translation, and invite you to read along in the translation of your choice, or to listen quietly in your seat, imagining yourself as those first hearing these words.

Acts 2:37-47

37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away — all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”

41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.

42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.

These are the words of God for all God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds, that we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.

Does anything stand out to any of you either from our Genesis or our Acts reading?

Though we are studying Acts, today I’m drawn first to our Genesis reading. In our Genesis reading, God appears to the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians trinity russiaalike, our father Abraham.  In our Tuesday sermon shaping group, several of us noted with surprise how God neither appears in power and in glory, nor as a single solitary person, to Abraham. Instead, long before the names Father, Son, and Spirit were used in prayer, God appears as three persons all at once, who seem to be strangers passing by Abraham’s tent in the extreme heat of the day in the Arabian desert.  Knowing anyone traveling under such a sweltering desert sun would need shelter, Abraham is moved with compassion and offers these three hospitality.  Jim Bissett pointed out in our sermon-shaping group the historical context: that in this situation whether or not you offer or receive hospitality would have been a life or death question.  Someone traveling in that extreme desert heat could easily die without an offer of the kind of shade, water, or shelter Abraham offers these seeming strangers.  Abraham and Sarah not only welcome them out of the heat of the sun into the shade of their campsite, they also wash their feet, and give them each food and drink from their own table.  Moved by Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, God speaks as these three persons who are somehow also one, announcing to these two their promise that, though they are past child-bearing years and have begun to give up any hope of children themselves, God will yet grant Abraham and Sarah a child and, through this son, the whole world would be blessed.

This story was so important to early Christians that one of the earliest pieces of Christian art is based on this story.   (pass out copy of art) In this painting, the Trinity is pictured as these three who came to Abraham, now gathered around a table of welcome.  The artists holy-trinity-icon-461make clear this story is not only about Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming strangers but just as much about how these three persons who are together the One God are the true host, welcoming Abraham and Sarah and offering them gifts beyond words. This painting is meant to show the Trinity as not just hosts to Abraham and Sarah — but also to all who walk this pilgrim path through the circles of our world. As Abraham and Sarah did, this Triune God welcomes all people out of the blazing heat or freezing cold of their days to find rest under the shelter of their tent at a place at the Triune God’s table, where there is always more than enough to eat and drink, and where all are welcomed as one family.

When we celebrate God as Trinity as we do this Sunday, and as we do whenever we sing our Doxology, we are joining these early Christians in celebrating how, at heart, God is not some lonely judge sitting on a distant throne far removed from our lives dispensing heartless rules and cold judgments; and celebrating how our lives, at heart, are neither merely blind chance nor blind obedience to dogmas or rules.  At heart, God is instead a perfect community which all are invited to join, an embrace of compassion extended to all, a dance of lovingkindness that has existed long before anything was ever made and which will continue long after the world as we know it now winds down and passes away, a love that always makes room for more at the table of mercy. It is love, the love shared by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, that birthed us and our world into being; it is that same love as it is extended to you and to me that gives us the strength to embrace all our joys and challenges with hope; and it is to such love we all long to return, for that love is our heart’s true home.

Yet, though this love is the dance at the center of the universe and our lives, it is something with which we each can lose step and fall out of rhythm. Our Acts reading points us to what we can do to get back in touch with this love of the Creator, The Christ, the-trinity-kelly-latimoreand the Spirit.  Struck to the heart by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, facing the many ways they have fallen out of step with this love which moves lives forward to their deepest fulfillment, people ask what to do to get back to this connection and this rhythm for their lives.  Peter points them toward a change of mind and thinking – which is maybe a better translation of the Greek word metanoia than the word “repentance” in our Bibles, with all it often conveys today – followed by baptism.   This change of mind ushers people into God’s renewal of  their lives, reconnecting them with the love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  Peter goes on to say this promise of renewal is not just for those being baptized by Peter that day but for all who come after them, following in their steps, each and every one of them– even all outside these walls, even those the world had given up on and judged too lost, too last, and too least, no exceptions.

As Annette and Jim both pointed out in our sermon shaping group, too often we think of what Peter describes as a one and done deal — wih is thinking, you’ve said a prayer, been baptized, or come to the altar, and that’s it— you are saved! — when instead changing our hearts and minds is an ongoing process, one which we see the church in Acts constantly needing to go through, each time they get it wrong by trying to put up “you are not welcome here” signs.

Those who accept Peter’s invitation continue being transformed again and again through dinner-table-lconnecting with the love of the Trinity which is at the center of their lives.  They do so through taking part in specific actions that help keep them connected with , grounded in, and growing in God’s all-inclusive love: they listen to the apostles’ teaching, they embrace fellowship or solidarity with each other despite differences, they share meals and resources together including the Lord’s supper, and they pray together.  As a few in our Tuesday night group pointed out, the rest of Acts make it clear that, like most of us, even as he preaches these words,  Peter himself  even doesn’t completely get them. Throughout Acts, Peter again and again has to return to these sources of connection and renewal to begin again whenever he loses sight of God’s love for all.

These activities that Luke highlights are what theologians call means of grace – a 50 cent phrase for practices that help us remind ourselves who we are and whose we are, and help us find our place again back in that dance of creation, that movement of love, that embrace of kindness, that is our own true home.   If even Peter and the apostles need to reconnect with this flow of love, so must we.   Just like these first believers did, we need to consider what practical acts we can put in place in our individual lives  and our lives together to slow down our busy lives, quiet the noise around and within us, to return home into the rhythm and dance of the love of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.

When we are baptised or confirmed — which I remember some of you recently saw happen to your grandchildren! — we remind ourselves how God said over Jesus at his Baptism-of-Christ (1)own baptism “this is my child whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”, while the Spirit came over Jesus like a mother dove enfolding her chicks under her wings.  We are trusting the promise that God the Trinity enfolds us too in this same embrace of love — each and every one of us — announcing through Christ we too are God’s own children whom  God loves, in whom God is well pleased.

When we pray and listen to Scripture, which is where we find the apostle’s teaching today,  together, we quiet the noise of our world and our worries.  We remind ourselves who we are from God’s perspective.  As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting” love.

When we take the Lord’s supper together, we remind ourselves at that table that we are not intended to be alone.  We are made to bear the image of the God we know as Trinity, desmond-tutua God who is not some lonely hermit in the sky but a community of love, open to all.  At Christ’s table we are reminded we can only discover who we are as bearers of that image when we stand together in friendship and in solitary with others, especially those very different from us. As  Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa during the end of apartheid, reminds us, “… the essence of being human” is “that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.”

As a number of people pointed out in our sermon shaping group, as beautiful as such a vision of openness and community is, it is also messy.  Being open to others is not always easy.  Standing in solidarity with others, sharing our lives, our resources, our finances, with them, is both risky and sometimes costly.  Like Jesus, you and I can be hurt, can be forsaken, when we go down that route.  I bet if I asked around this room, many of you would have stories aplenty to share about just this painful truth.

What’s more, unlike Jesus and the Trinity, you and I will fall short and make mistakes — we will fight, we will argue, and we will have conflict in our attempts to be this kind of forgive 2community. You can take that to the bank!  God’s Table of mercy reminds us there is always forgiveness from God bigger than our failings.   None of us can fall too far or do too much to return home to love of the Trinity. God’s love and mercy allows each and every one of us to begin again. No matter what.  That is good news!

Yet these ever open arms of welcome by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are not only good news but also a challenge.  For, to embody this love together, to move in step with it, we also have to make space for all, even for others who have failed us, even those who have us caused us harm and betrayed us, being ready to begin again with them too, welcoming them back to us as God in Christ has welcomed us back again and again.   No wonder we need to be connected with the Triune God’s love, mercy,  and transforming grace!

Ultimately, slowing down from the busyness of our lives like this to connect or re-connect to God and each other through these means of grace opens us up more fully to life itself.   Our challenge, as we explore how to “be the church” together, is to explore how we can do this together, how we can discover ourselves as one at baptism and table, as one with God and each other, and one with all God’s creation and all people, through these means of grace.   May we embrace this love, this welcome, this full and fulfilling life together today and all our days.  Amen and Amen.


Week in the Word — Be The Church: Listening for the Still-speaking Spirit

Be-the-Church-horizontal-e1490899709537This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 9th,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.


Scripture readingPsalm 104;  Acts 2:1-21

Sermon  “Be the Church: Listening to the Still-Speaking Spirit”

Welcome to worship on the lake this Pentecost Sunday!  Today, we continue our series “Be The Church”, studying the book of Acts together. Each week we are exploring a different building block of being a vibrant church found in the book of Acts both during our sermon time and our Tuesday night sermon shaping group.  Today we look, of course, at the description of the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, beginning in verse 1.

pentecost sermon“On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.

7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” 12 They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other.

13 But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!”

14 Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. 15 These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that. 16 No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

Your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit

even on my servants—men and women alike—

and they will prophesy.

19 And I will cause wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below—

blood and fire and clouds of smoke.

20 The sun will become dark,

and the moon will turn blood red

before that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives.

21 But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”” ( Acts 2:1-21, NLT)


These are the words of God for all God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts to what God is saying to us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

Before I turn to what these words say to me, what stands out to you?

As I reflect on where we are in our own lives and especially as a church, I am drawn to how Peter says the Holy Spirit’s coming on Pentecost and ever since fulfills God’s promise to send the Spirit so people of all ages and backgrounds will “will dream dreams”,  and “see visions” again.

In life we face situations we don’t expect, when the path we’ve been on collapses beneath us, and the maps we’ve been using to guide our steps no longer work.    It might be a health crisis, the loss of a job, a relationship that unravels, or even opportunities or callings emerging we never expected which, though good, upset the apple cart of our plans.  As Michael Lynch pointed out in our sermon shaping group Tuesday night, in such moments the dreams we’ve had for ourselves can feel shattered, like so many shards of glass, lying all around us, as we are forced to pick up the pieces, dust ourselves off, and search out how to dream again.   And as Annette and Robin brought up on Tuesday night such experiences can drive us to react to life with fear rather than the hope and openness we need to dream.

6ebdd-paulimurraybylaurelgreenOne of the more moving examples to me of someone facing into situations that could have shattered her dreams who was yet able to find strength to dream again is Pauli Murray.

Pauli grew up in Durham in the early part of the 20th century, in the hay-day of both segregation here in the South and also what Pauli later called “Jane Crow”, the laundry list of laws in her day aimed at keeping women “in their place” as second-class citizens.  Raised by devout Episcopalian aunts, Pauli grew up with deep faith, both in herself and in her God, the kind of faith that led her to live out Martin Luther King’s maxim, “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”.  Facing into deep discrimination and mistreatment as a person of color in the south, a woman in a society that wanted women to be seen and not heard, and as a person who gradually discovered over the course of her life she was what we would today call “queer” or “LGBT”, it would have been easy for Pauli to let the world shatter her dreams and determine her future.  And yet, the faith she had been taught at the hands of her aunts continued to open her up to God the Holy Spirit, whom we know in the United Church of Christ as the God who is still speaking.

Each time the world sought to rob Pauli of her dreams, this still-speaking Spirit renewed them for her, helping her embrace openness and hope rather than fear.  And Pauli truly lived out her dreams, despite every obstacle.  Long before the end of racial segregation in the south, she did not let the color of her skin dictate her destiny but became a journalist, a writer, and a lawyer who worked alongside the NAACP supporting civil rights causes.  Along the way there, Pauli began to pave the way for the end of racial segregation both by fighting the state of North Carolina for banning people of color from the UNC Law School and by being jailed for bus sit-ins long before Rosa Parks.   She also fought against discrimination based on gender in education and in the workplace, even helping found 4f4f8-paulimurraybyparadoxythe National Organization for Women.  Pauli ultimately became a leading voice for the full inclusion of women in the church, a dream which led her to become one of the first women ordained a pastor in the Episcopal Church (USA), and their first black female pastor ever.  Each time Pauli faced something that might shatter her dreams, the Holy Spirit opened her up again, speaking and pointing out for her how to dream again. Tuesday night our sermon shaping group suggested the Holy Spirit transforms tragedy into a chance to begin again. Just so, Pauli learned through the Spirit how to turn these struggles not into stumbling stones but springboards from which to leap forward into God’s future.

Many of you have, like Pauli, also faced situations that challenged your dreams. When this happens, where do you turn to hear the still-speaking voice of the Spirit to help you dream again?

The book of Acts provides many places to look and listen for God’s dream-weaving Spirit.:

First, the Spirit comes down when people show up, even while worn to the bone or in the holy spirit 1midst of trial and crisis.  In the period between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost, before there are any flashy signs or wonders to speak of, people gather, they elect leaders, they work and they wait.  When the Spirit comes down, it is first upon those same ones who have rolled up their sleeves to show up.  This is good news to some of us, who, though you are weary and exhausted, keep showing up, rolling up your sleeves, not yet seeing the results of your hard work.

The Holy Spirit also speaks as people open themselves up in prayer.  In the days between Ascension day and Pentecost Sunday, the main task of these first followers of Jesus is to pray.   In the midst of praying and waiting, the Spirit comes and a new dream breaks forth.  Slowing down from our busy tasks and from our worrying for prayer that opens us up to God’s still-speaking voice today just as it did then.

Though it is less flashy than tongues of fire, one key way the Spirit shows up on Pentecost is through people listening to the voice of Scripture together.  It is to the Scriptures that Peter turns to discover the shape and direction this experience of God speaking in new holy spirit like windways points.   Peter does not turn to the Bible as a rule-book to blindly follow, but as a living conversation into which he and others are invited, a conversation in which the Spirit is still speaking new things for those who listen.  I feel this is the way we approached it in our Tuesday night sermon shaping group. When we learn to hear Scripture together in this way, like a flashlight on a trail at night, it can point us beyond itself to the paths God is already laying down in your life, in my life, and in our world, helping us hear what the Spirit is already speaking.

The Holy Spirit who shows up on Pentecost is also the same creator Spirit we see in our Psalm reading –who moves like wind on a lifeless world, breathing new life wherever that Spirit touches.  To hear the still-speaking Spirit then involves paying attention to the messages nature gives.  We are not listening to the Spirit if we ignore evidence of pollution and climate change, the findings of science, or the proof people are, to quote Lady Gaga, born this way.

Tuesday night Larry asked the question of how our lives and history would have been different if we had realized not only do we have a story to tell to the nations, but the This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God.people of each of those nations have a story to tell to us. This too is part of Acts’ message. The Spirit also shows up on Pentecost in languages and voices the disciples had not previously known.  Throughout Acts, the Spirit opens up new ways to move God’s dream forward whenever long ignored voices are finally truly heard. Whenever we listen to the voices of those our world deems as “other” and tries to silence, we open ourselves up today still to the voice of the still-speaking Spirit.

Finally, the Spirit speaks through people’s imagination.   We can easily become skeptical of how much in Acts the Spirit speaks through dreams, visions, apparitions of angels or the risen Jesus, asking, Was that real?  Or was that just their imagination?  Yet once we use that word “just” about imagination , we miss the point, forgetting God created us, imagination and all.  We can be too quick to rule out our own longings, desires, imaginations, and hopes as if those are not parts of us God made, parts of us God can use, and parts of us God can speak through.   Yet, if God can speak through the voice of the “other”, through nature, through Scripture, through prayer, and through us showing up, then certainly there is no reason our own imagination, dreams, and longings cannot sometimes be exactly where the Spirit speaks.

Let’s close by looking at our imaginations and dreams. I have placed mirrors, as kinds of symbolic windows to God’s future, on our tables.  I want to invite you to take sticky notes and write down some of your dreams for yourself, for your church, and for your community, and place those sticky notes on the mirror to imagine what dreams may lay ahead for us, if we open ourselves to God’s Spirit together.  When all have had a chance to do so, I will offer these dreams to God in prayer.


O Still-speaking Spirit, help open our ears to your voice, our eyes to your dreams and visions.  Amen!


Week in the Word — Be The Church: We Belong to Christ

This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 2nd,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Scripture readingPsalm 8; Acts 1:1-11

Sermon  “Be the Church: We Belong to Christ”

I am grateful and excited to be beginning a journey together with you as your pastor. I know not only can I contribute to our ministry here in Burlington, but each of you great cloud of saints behind preacheralready have been living lives of grace, compassion, justice, and peacemaking from which I can learn a lot and many of you are already rolling up your sleeves to make a difference. As I prayed about what direction to begin with in our journey together it felt important to spend some time considering who we are as a church and where we are called to go. So, today we begin a series entitled “Be The Church”, from the book of Acts. Each week we will look at one aspect of what is involved with being a vibrant church that is presented in the book of Acts.  In addition to exploring these “Be the Church” values from Acts on Sundays, I want to invite those of you who can to join me Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM for our sermon-shaping Bible study where we will be exploring the Scriptures and the values we will be looking in our upcoming sermon each week.  Today, as it is Ascension Sunday, we begin with the Ascension account in Acts 1, starting in verse 1.  Please feel free to read along in your Bibles, or to close your eyes and listen in your seat, imagining yourself as one present on that first Ascension Day, paying attention to what words or images connect with you. However you best hear Holy Scripture, let’s listen to it together.

Acts 1:1-11, New Living Translation

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. 3 During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.

christs ascension4 Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. 5 John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

7 He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

9 After saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. 10 As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!”

These are the words of God, for all God’s people.  May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out to you in these words, and in this story?

pulse.jpgAs I read this passage, it brings to mind a conversation I had around the time of the Pulse shooting in Florida a few years ago.  Wanting to help us understand why that shooting felt so shocking and traumatic for him, a friend told me and some other friends about his first experience going to a gay bar.  His first visit to such a bar was when there were still few places gay and lesbian people could be open about who they were.  Walking into that bar for the first time, seeing gay men and lesbians openly being who they were, without fear, was like a breath of fresh air for him.  He said to himself “these are my people,” “I can be myself here,” “I belong.” He found a safe space there, where he could be himself without fear.

In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle, also tells a story of such longing to belong.  Boyle tells of his church’s ministry, HomeBoy Industries.  HomeBoy Industries helps young people get out of the gang life and begin to live full and rewarding lives in their community.  Many of these young men and women helped by HomeBoy Industries

first became involved with gangs out of this same hunger and thirst for belonging.  Many of them grow up rootless, in poverty, not always knowing or being connected with both of their parents.   The gang pulls them in, offering them a sense of dignity, worth, connection, and a place in which to belong.  Yet that sense of belonging is contingent on what they can do for the gang. Failing to do what the gang asks to or crossing a rival gang can have life-wrecking consequences, and even sometimes cost someone their life.  Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart tells story after story of people who discover another sense of belonging, a sense of their own value that is not bound up in what they contribute or fail to contribute , but in how God looks at them for who they are intrinsically, as God’s very own children. Such a longing for a place to be yourself, a place to belong, is not limited to people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender nor to those caught up in gangs.   We all have this same longing, to belong, to be accepted, just as we are.

At first glance, it may not be obvious what such talk of belonging has to do with the story of the Ascension.   Yet, when you hear this story in the light of the larger context of Scripture, it becomes clear its message is that, through Christ, you and I – and all creation — belong.

In the Gospel of Luke which precedes and acts as a kind of prequel to our book of Acts, Luke tells how the Holy Spirit comes to a simple unmarried girl who is engaged to a poor man who works with his hands, and invites her to let God take up residence within her – becoming flesh of her flesh, bone of pregnant motherher bone, in her womb.    Mary says “yes” to this invitation. How much more closely can God be with you than this?  When God then appears as that vulnerable child growing in her own body, Mary responds through praying the Magnificat, announcing that God will overturn the oppressor and the tyrant, lifting up those the world has counted out as too small and too weak.   Mary knew God had cast God’s lot with us – with simple ordinary people; with the last, the lost, and the least.  We belong.  We belong now. We belong forever.  In the baby she bears, God takes on a human life of flesh and skin and bones, of growth and of questioning, of friendship and of betrayal, of joy and of sorrow, of hunger and of thirst, of celebration and of sacrifice, of death and of burial, becoming as the prophet Isaiah promised, our Immanuel, our God-with-us.

In his resurrection accounts in both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, Luke goes out of his way to make clear God being with us and for us did not end at the cross.  It is not over, but continues today.  God is still with us. You and I still belong. Luke presents Jesus being raised fully to new life, both body and soul, after his crucifixion. When Jesus appears among people after Easter Day, Luke tells us they see and handle Jesus’s scars.   Jesus eats bread and fish with them, demonstrating he is not a ghost or a hallucination.   Luke eastercontinues here in Acts by telling us how Jesus is taken up into heaven by God fully, body and soul. Whether you read Luke’s accounts literally or metaphorically, his point is clear: God was not just play-acting in Jesus.  Flesh and blood, joy and sorrow, longing and contentment, every very human aspect of our lives God shared in by being born of Mary, were not just some masks God put on and God then placed aside when done.   In Jesus, God cast God’s lot in with us forever and always, making clear we belong to God, so God stands with us and stands with the least and the lost and the last, against any power that seeks to silence and oppress.

God’s casting God’s lot with us is like a woman choosing to become a mother as Mary does.  When this happens, she chooses to make room in herself for another life—one that actually grows in her, in her womb, as flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone.   And – mothers, correct me if I am wrong — that child does not just impact her only the nine months of her pregnancy, or only the fleeting moments she first holds her baby in her arms.   In a real way, whenever a woman chooses like Mary of Nazareth did to become a friend-with-jesus-clearmother, she chooses to throw her lot in with her growing child’s.  No longer is her life simply hers alone.  Forever after her fate is now tied up with the fate of her child’s, so your future is bound up in your child’s.  This is part of why the verses that follow here in Acts make clear that, even though Jesus has already died and risen, Mary continues to be impacted by giving birth to and raising Jesus.  Though he is physically gone after our reading, Mary still joins Jesus’ other disciples in praying and preparing for Pentecost, finding her future wrapped up in her son’s.

My late mother used to express this truth to me by saying – “It doesn’t matter how big you get, how far you move away, how many degrees and letters you get behind your name, whether you become rich or poor,  single or married with armloads of children, I will always be here for you.  You will always be my child and I will always be your momma.

The Ascension shows us that by choosing to come as one of us, God likewise cast God’s lot with us.  Now, always, and forever, God’s future is bound up with ours.  God says to us it doesn’t matter how big or small you feel, how far life takes you away, what good or bad labels the world puts by your name, whether you are rich or poor, single or married with a ton of kids, you will always be by my precious Beloved; and I will always be with you as Savior and Guide.

And it is not just us, but all things belong through Christ. Ephesians 1:4 tells us that, through the Ascension, Christ is now always with us, so we always belong, saying, “And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.” Rather than Ascension Day meaning ascensionJesus is far away from us, somewhere out there, beyond the furthest star, it means instead that Jesus Christ is actually closer than we can imagine, closer than he could be in his earthly life – filling all of life, all of creation, with his Christ presence, so that no matter where life takes us, Christ is already there, ready to help, ready to love, ready to be in our corner.

This truth, the truth that all belongs in Christ, was beautifully captured by St. Patrick of Ireland when he prayed, “Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”  Christ’s ascension means Christ is at the center of all things: all people, all our lives, each of our moments, any situation we face.

We belong to Christ. Wherever life takes us, if our eyes are spiritually opened, we can see Christ there already with us – waiting for us or going ahead of us, ready to help, ready to lead, ready to challenge, ready to comfort, ready to care, and ready to guide. Our calling, Christ says, is to be a witness.  What is a witness?  A witness is one who truly sees, seeing Christ as present through the Spirit wherever we go, in whomever we meet, in every aspect of our lives.  We are to live out of this seeing, living changed lives.  Our words and deeds are to bear witness to the risen Ascended Christ, pointing to his presence in all, to the fact that you and I, and all things, belong; so we and others may more fully awaken to the Christ presence all around us, in our lives and in our world.

Having our eyes open to how the ascended Christ fills all things with his presence so that all belongs brings good news.  No matter where your life takes you, no matter what trials or failures, joys or successes, you face, you are never alone, never forsaken, and always have One in whom you belong.

Yet being such a witness is also a challenge.  Having our eyes open to the fact Christ is now present in and with all, and that all belong in Christ, forces us to ask – if Christ is already present wherever I go, how can I just walk by comfortably, unmoved at the sight of people struggling in poverty in my community?  If Christ is present already in the person being persecuted for the color of their skin or the person they love, how I can honor Christ’s presence if I’m not speaking up for our need to treat them with respect?  If Christ is in each person, how can I look away when refugee children die from inhumane treatment in ICE holding cells, or look away  from the other children suffering from domestic violence right now in our neighborhoods?  If Christ is present in all of nature and all living things, how can I shrug off polluting our earth, and not live as if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof?

Ascension Day is the promise that God has cast God’s lot with us and is still doing so. Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will come as we wait, pray, and witness is the promise God will continue to cast God’s lot with us, and with  all people and all creation, working in them and us, in all who will embrace being such witnesses, and working in us and them to continue Christ’s healing work in our world.

You belong. We belong.  It all belongs.  May we live as such witnesses of this,  today and all our days.  Amen and Amen.