Sunday, May 29, 2022

Sermon: “A Time to…”, Luke 24:44-53/Acts 16:23-34 (May 29, 2022)


We all intuitively recognize the wisdom in this famous passage from Ecclesiastes [3:1-8, CEB]: “There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens: a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking, a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace.” The writer of Ecclesiastes probably didn’t need to include 14 separate examples to make his case, but because he did, his point is inescapable: the righteousness of every action must be considered in its context. There is a time that it is right to do one thing, and there is another time that it is right to do its exact opposite – and God is the one who can always tell us which is which.

One example that the writer of Ecclesiastes somehow managed to omit is a discernment that we must make on an almost daily basis: there is a time to stay, and there is a time to go. Maybe it’s for the best that this was left out. This choice is SO important that it shouldn’t get lost in a recitation of 14 others; it can be one of the most life-changing ones we make. Whether to stay or go from the town you grew up in, whether to stay or go from a relationship, whether to stay or go from a new job opportunity, whether to stay or go from pandemic prevention measures: knowing when it’s right to stay and when it’s right to move on can be one of the most consequential decisions that we face. And the answer always depends entirely on the specific situation.

Jesus was no stranger to this particular dichotomy. Like us, his entire life was a series of decisions about when to stay and when to go. His birth was God’s choice to stay and dwell with humanity, his crucifixion was God’s choice to go for a time, his Resurrection was God’s choice to again be with humanity, and his Ascension was God’s choice to go again. I could devote four entirely separate sermons to explaining WHY God made each of these choices when God did, but suffice it to say that each choice was made in a specific context, and each of them was the right choice for that place and time.

But of course, this isn’t just a decision that deities have to make. Jesus’ ministry also included plenty of lessons to teach the disciples about this cycle of going and staying. He certainly called them to go often enough: he encouraged them to leave their boats and families to follow him, he sent them out to heal in his name, he insisted that they go back down the mountain after the Transfiguration, and of course, they all went to Jerusalem together to face Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But he also taught them to stay and break bread with sinners, he lingered after a sermon so that they might feed 5000 people, he invited himself and his disciples to stay in Zacchaeus’ home, and he insisted that they all remain at the Last Supper to share a meal with the one who was to betray him.

In the Ascension, Jesus offers them one final, extraordinary lesson in knowing when it’s time to stay and when it’s time to go. He gives them their final instructions: they are to GO with him out to Bethany, and then STAY in Jerusalem until they’re “furnished with heavenly power.” But beyond that, once Jesus goes from them that final time, the disciples are on their own. Now THEY have to discern, without Jesus’ guidance, when it’s right to stay and when it’s right to go. The book of Acts is the continuing account of these choices following Jesus’ ascension.

Now, obviously, 16 chapters in, the story of Paul and Silas in prison isn’t the FIRST time that Jesus’ followers are confronted with the choice of whether to stay or go, but it is perhaps one of the most illuminating. The two men had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned by the local authorities, and so when an earthquake shakes the prison’s foundations, the doors fly open, and everyone’s chains come loose, one might assume that Paul and Silas would take this opportunity to escape so that they might continue to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. It certainly looks like a time to go.

But they don’t. They don’t make the choice to escape that was, by all moral accounts, their right to make. They don’t decide whether to stay or go based on what’s most comfortable or desirable or beneficial for themselves but based on what’s most consistent with the gospel – and in their eyes, the choice is obvious: they must stay. They refuse to allow even one person to die for the sake of their freedom. No, they aren’t personally responsible for another man’s actions, and no, they certainly don’t owe their jailer anything. But Paul and Silas know that if there is an opportunity to save even one life with their presence and testimony, even at a personal cost, it’s the right choice to make. They know that it is, in fact, a time to stay.

We, too, have an obligation through Christ to discern when it’s right to stay, even though we might prefer to go. It’s easy to live life continuously moving from place to place, telling ourselves that there’s just too much to do to keep still. And sometimes, going IS the right choice. But other times, we need to stay where we are in order to best serve the gospel. We need to sit in the discomfort, or the grief, or the confinement, or the tension in order to bring us closer to God’s kindom. Recognizing when it’s time to stay isn’t any sort of secret knowledge or anything that can be taught; this understanding is guided solely by the Holy Spirit. And so, we must listen carefully when she cries out for us to stay where we are.

Friends, I had intended to offer the example of the COVID pandemic being a time to stay for the sake of the gospel, but after the terrible events that unfolded at an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, it feels like the Holy Spirit has a different lesson in mind. Right now, we may be tempted to move on from one more shooting, one more act of horrific violence, and to go on with our lives as we’ve become conditioned and (let’s be honest) accustomed to. But we’ve moved on too many times as a society. God is crying out in anguish for us to stay with the pain and grief until it forces us to change.


Do not hear this as a political statement. It is not, at least not in the sense that you might reflexively assume. It is a theological statement. The fact is that God cannot tolerate the routine murder of children attending school, people of color doing their grocery shopping, and immigrants and their descendants worshiping together – or, indeed, anyone – and God will never, ever be satisfied for us to accept it as the way things have to be. We might think that we NEED to move on in order to move forward, to move past the latest headline in order for society to continue progressing. And there may be times that we need to take a break from all the horror for the sake of our mental health. But sometimes, if something is so horribly broken that disaffected young men find it both easy and acceptable to express themselves using lethal violence, then we can’t afford to leave this space of grief and pain behind until, as a society, we’ve done something about it.

In the passage from Acts, the guard was going to end a life (his own) because he believed that it was his only choice. It was “just the way things were”. But Paul chose to stay, to literally forgo his own freedom, in order to save this man’s life. He chose not to move on, although it would have been easier for him, although it would have looked and felt more like victory for him. He made this choice because it’s what the gospel compelled him to do – to stay in that moment, to engage in the difficult conversation, to set aside his own comfort, so that he might be an agent of more life instead of tolerating more death.

I am not advocating for any particular solution; God knows that I don’t have the answer for how to stop the violence that plagues our nation. I struggle to even figure out what meaningful actions I can take in my own small sphere of influence. But if we insist that we are disciples of Christ, if we claim to follow the way of Jesus, then we cannot collectively move on from this yet. The gospel demands that we stay here, that we make personal sacrifices, that we stand up for the peaceful kindom, that we preach life instead of death – and that we encourage others to do the same.

It will feel hopeless at times; we will become weary and discouraged. But if Paul can choose to remain in prison for the sake of his jailer, if Jesus can choose to die on a cross for the sake of those who put him there, then surely, we can choose to stay with the grief, to stay in the difficult conversations, to stay and witness to the kindom that God has promised us.

There will come a day when it’s once again time for us to go; the Spirit will call us to our next destination, just as Christ ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for now, friends, we stay. For now, we weep. For now, we prophesy. For now, we make our voices heard in the darkness. For now, we refuse to give into the forces of evil, because wherever we choose to stay, God is there too. If we all stand together in Christ’s name, we know that God’s kindom WILL come. May we insist on making it so. Amen.

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