Monday, May 14, 2018

Sermon: "The In-Between", Exodus 18:8-9, 13-24/Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 (May 13, 2018)



I’m about to preach a very different sermon than some of you may be expecting.

Today, many churches around the world are celebrating Ascension Day, the day when Christ finally “ascended” into heaven forty days after his resurrection. This is an important day for Christians as we remember the end of Jesus’ physical time on earth and his final instructions to the Apostles: to proclaim the good news to all nations. But today isn’t actually Ascension Day; that was on Thursday. With Ascension Day technically over and Pentecost not happening until next Sunday, today is something different. Today, we’re in what’s liturgically called “The In-Between.”

Well, no, that’s not true. I completely made that up. But I figured that, since it’s so often overshadowed by those other major festivals, this day deserves its own memorable moniker. Besides, it plays an important role in Eastertide. Just as it’s crucial for us to dwell in the darkness of Holy Week between the celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, we need to take a breather between the Ascension and Pentecost in order to more fully appreciate where the disciples are at this point: what I call “the in-between”.

So, some context. If we HAD spent today focusing on the Ascension, we would have heard Jesus’ final words to his disciples. These included a promise that God would send the Holy Spirit to them, a charge for them to serve as witnesses to the ends of the earth, and…an instruction for them to stay put and wait in Jerusalem?? Now, as products of an action-oriented society, I’m sure we can all appreciate how confused the disciples must have been. Basically, Jesus had just helped them cram for the final exam and at the last minute told them that they couldn’t take it yet. So they were left with the question that so many of us struggle with so often: what do we do now?

This space between two major, life-changing events, is the in-between. We’ve all been there, right? The place where we’re past what was, but we’re not yet at what is to be. A time of transition. A liminal space that’s defined by its resistance to definition. It’s appropriate that we’ve been given this reading at this time of year, because all of the upcoming graduations serve as apt parallels to the disciples’ circumstances. You’ve worked hard, done all the right things (or some of the right things, and everything else just worked out somehow), ridden the emotional roller-coaster, and are ready for the next step. Just like the disciples. And yet, the next step isn’t quite here yet. You have to wait.

Wherever your particular in-between is, whether your next step is something you’re looking forward to or something you’re dreading, waiting isn’t generally something we human beings are particularly good at. Once we’ve decided which path to take, we want to start sprinting down it. But while the in-between might feel like a burden at times, keeping us stuck in one place, it’s really a blessing in disguise (sometimes, a really good disguise). It’s a chance to take stock, to make sure we’re ready for what comes next, and to take care of ourselves. It’s pause in which to ask, “How do we stay healthy, safe, and on task as we move forward?”

Take, for example, a Biblical group that famously dwelt in the in-between: the Israelites, after having escaped from Egypt. Their in-between lasted Forty. Years. We usually read their wandering in the wilderness as a punishment from God for disobedience—because it was. But everyone knows that the most effective punishments aren’t just opportunities for parental masochism (at least, I hope they aren’t) but are opportunities to think, learn, and grow from the experience. What’s the classic line when sending a toddler to time out? “Go to your room and…think about what you’ve done.” Perhaps the Israelites needed an extended in-between-slash-time-out to properly prepare themselves to be a divinely-led nation as opposed to the vulnerable, powerless underdogs that they had been. They needed a chance to discover who they were and who they were to become.

This isn’t easy work under the best of circumstances, and the higher the stakes, the more difficult it becomes. Sometimes, we need to rely on those around us to direct our focus while we’re in the in-between. Moses was, for all his strengths, not particularly good at self-care. Once he finally accepted God’s job offer from the Burning Bush on Mount Horeb, he threw himself into his role whole-heartedly. But it took some downtime in the desert and the wisdom of his father-in-law to help him realize that he couldn’t do it all. The future of God’s people needed to be built on a sustainable governing model, rather than the sole efforts of an old man running on fumes. Moses needed the pause of the in-between to help him accept that the Israelites’ new reality would—and should—transform his role among them. He needed it to help him see more clearly what changes were required before the people could enter the promised land.

Moses found that the in-between isn’t entirely about waiting around, but it isn’t about doing for the sake of doing, either. It’s an intentional time of figuring out how to best prepare for the next thing that God calls us to do—even if we don’t know when or what that will be. Likewise, the disciples didn’t necessarily know what the giving of Holy Spirit would look like; they just knew that it was the next step that Jesus had laid out before them. So they gathered their community around them and did the work of figuring out what to do until then. They discerned that, although it wasn’t yet time for them to begin their official ministries, there was still preparation that needed to be done.

They came to understand that their apostolic circle was incomplete; with Judas’ abdication of his ministerial responsibility, they needed to select a new person to carry the mantle of the 12th disciple. This may seem like a strange conclusion for the disciples to come to, but it was actually a significant step in their self-understanding. The twelve disciples that surrounded Jesus during his earthly life reflected the twelve tribes of Israel that were the foundation of Jewish society. Judas represented a break with this foundation. The disciples had a choice to make: they could either go forward as they were, rejecting the formative patterns of their past, or they could take the time to ensure continuity with the tradition that had formed them. The in-between gave them the opportunity to wrestle with what such a choice might mean for them and for the infant Church.

Ultimately, they opted to embrace their connection to the past. They decided that before they could serve as witnesses to the good news for ALL nations—the new religious movement that was their next step—they needed to make sure that they were grounded in their heritage. Now, I don’t think that they were under any misapprehensions that they were going BACK to the way things were before Jesus. They, of all people, knew how profoundly the world had been changed by God’s power and love through Christ. There WAS no going back. But even as they prepared to take that next step, they realized that they couldn’t entirely abandon the tradition, community, and faith that had brought them there if they were to move forward in Christ’s name. The work of reimagining themselves while remaining grounded in their past was the disciples’ work of the in-between—work that still influences the Church today.

One of the key characteristics of the in-between that both the disciples and Moses discovered, one that made it possible for them to do that work that they needed to do, is that it is profoundly connectional. It’s the moment that connects the past to the future, who we were to who we will be, and those who dwell in it to one another. It’s kind of like the mooring of a boat: although it may feel at times like we’re adrift, we’re safely tethered in a way that allows us the flexibility to imagine what comes next and the time to make sure we’re ready for it. This mooring is what allows the in-between to be such a useful place for us. It keeps us connected to what’s important as we gauge the seas and listen for God’s guidance.

Sometimes, this connectional nature is what allows us to keep afloat long enough to even make it to the next step. In the last week, our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church received word that two constitutional amendments affirming gender equality and non-discrimination had failed in a global vote. Failed. Which means that the church that they love had refused to state that women are unequivocally equal to men. Many of my friends are devastated by the news: in a denomination that has had women preachers and leaders from their start, this vote felt to them like this was a denial of women’s worth in the church’s eyes and a refusal to acknowledge women’s value as human beings.

They are in the in-between. The vote has been taken; the next steps are not yet clear. During this time, I’ve seen both men and women of faith finding the sustaining connections of the in-between to keep them going. They’ve been leaning on the tenets of their beloved denomination—their heritage—to reassure them that this is not God’s will for the Church. They’ve been dreaming of the next Annual Conference and how they will raise their prophetic voices to their colleagues. They’ve been reaching out to one another to lend their support and encouragement in the wake of this heartbreaking vote, and they’ve been connecting with Christians of all denominations to help them remember that they’re not alone. They may feel like they’re stuck or worse, sinking, but they’re able to find comfort and reassurance in the steady tethering of the in-between. And when they’re ready, they will set sail and do whatever it is that God calls them to do next.

We, too, have much to lean on and much to learn from as we wait. At the end of the day, however, the in-between isn’t about what we get from it, but what we do with it. Every in-between is different: our reflections, our conclusions, our emotions, even how long we stay there is unique for each person each time. What remains the same for all of us is the opportunity to use the it in service to God and God’s will for us.

We have options, of course—free will, and all that. We can sit still where we are and apathetically wait. We can yearn for what was. We can impatiently push towards the future. But none of this is particularly good stewardship of the in-between. This fertile time for self-reflection and self-evaluation is best used when we earnestly engage it in the moment. The in-between begs us to be honest and open with ourselves, so that we can evolve and grow into whoever we need to be in order to take that next step. Whatever your in-between looks like—whether it’s a time of joyful anticipation or a time of dreaded uncertainty—you have a choice to make.

This choice isn’t always easy, to be sure. In order to make the choice, we first need to trust that the mooring of the in-between will not let us go, even as we drift to and fro in our boat. We need to trust that where we are is where we need to be. We need to trust that God will remain there with us as we wrestle with the difficult realities of our situation, the challenges that we must address before we can move on, and the changes that we need to make within ourselves. Only then are we ready for this work, this choice. It’s not easy, but it’s right, and it’s a sacred responsibility.

Then, when we can take a breath and embrace the in-between for what it is, instead of frantically trying to scramble back on land or setting sail too quickly, we can be confident that we’re ready to face whatever it is that God has set before us. It may be awe-inspiring, like Pentecost. It may be intimidating, like entering the Promised Land. It may be terrifying, like beginning a new journey that you feel unprepared for. But whatever it is, know that by dwelling in the in-between, you’ve done the important work to prepare for it. Whatever your next step is, it will be holy, you will be loved, and God will be there. Amen.

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