Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sermon: "This Changes Everything!" Acts 1:4-9/Ephesians 1:15-19 (May 16, 2021)


When I first started telling people six years ago that I was moving to Idaho, I got all sorts of responses to the news. I remember one person joking that I was continuing my “I-90 ministry”—I’d begun with my theological education in Boston, continued back in my hometown of Rochester, and now was making the leap to Idaho (I-90 runs through the panhandle). According to this theory, I’ll have to retire in Washington to complete the journey.

I didn’t mind the joke at all. In fact, there was something comforting about knowing that I’d still be connected, however distantly, to the highway that I’d logged so many miles on over the years. Growing up, my family traveled I-90 to visit my grandparents in Buffalo; I made the trek between Boston and Rochester on a regular basis during the 5 years I lived in Massachusetts; I’d even occasionally hopped on I-90 for just a few miles if the traffic was bad on the other highways. Even though I was only really familiar with a relatively small stretch of the Interstate, it was still reassuring that, in the face of such a dramatic life change, I could still follow that same road to travel back home.

When Nick and I packed up a rental truck and set off on our journey west, though, we travelled on I-90 for less than 300 miles. Around Indiana, the GPS told us to follow the signs for I-80. I didn’t know anything about I-80. This was not my route. It wasn’t what I knew. But apparently, what I knew wasn’t the best way forward.

It’s human nature to gravitate towards the familiar, especially in times of upheaval or uncertainty. Familiar places, familiar people, familiar ideas. When the pandemic began, conventional wisdom told pastors to keep worship looking as close to “normal” as possible to provide grounding in the midst of the unknown. And now that vaccinations are becoming available to more and more people and we’re cautiously trying to determine what the future will look like, many of us, without realizing it, assume that we’ll be returning to the same comfortable patterns that were so well established before March 2020. More than a few of you have been surprised when I mention that I plan to continue streaming worship online once we’re able to fully gather in person again—pleasantly surprised, I’d say, but surprised, nonetheless. There’s an underlying assumption that everything we’ve done differently over the past year has been a stopgap measure, and that we’ll abandon most of it once we’re able to transition back to “normal.”

There’s nothing wrong with this at all; it’s just our very human desire for the familiar. That’s part of the reason that the liturgical year brings us comfort: no matter what, we can count on Easter to last 50 days, and we can expect Jesus’ ascension towards the end of it. While reading scripture this week, though, it occurred to me that the disciples didn’t have this sense of comforting familiarity with the bizarre events unfolding before them. Their expectations would have been dramatically different from what actually wound up happening.

To them, that whole crucifixion thing was just a bump in the road, and now that Jesus had returned, they could all get back to ministry as they’d been doing it for the past three years—Jesus and the gang, together again. It’s easy to miss, but notice what the disciples say in response to Jesus’ instructions to them: “Lord, are YOU going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” They’re holding on to their original assumptions: Jesus is the conquering Messiah who’ll defeat the Roman oppressors with his might, bringing a long-awaited political victory to the Jewish people. They, of course, will continue in their role as his sidekicks. Everything will go back to normal.

What they don’t understand is that the Resurrection was a game-changer. They’re now in completely uncharted territory. They look for the familiar—what they KNEW—but Jesus tells them it isn’t in the cards for them. “That’s not your business anymore. From now on, you’ll be given your own authority, and you’ll go out and share my message to the ends of the earth yourself.” And as if to prove his point, Jesus immediately ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples staring up after him in shock. Without Jesus physically by their side, there’s no possible way to go back to “normal”. This changes everything.

It was like the disciples had been travelling along I-90, cruise control engaged, singing road trip songs and not paying much attention to where they were going because they thought they knew the way. The crucifixion was a detour, a road closure that they didn’t expect and that, frankly, threw them into a panic. But now that they’re on the other side of it, they expect their JPS (Jesus Positioning System) to direct them back to their comfort zone, the route that they know, because it’d served them well in the past. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Jesus tells them that their route had been recalculated, and I-80 is now the road that they need to take.

It’s disorienting to suddenly be following a new road, on a new journey, when we have no idea what’s coming next and when. Before, we knew where the road turned, where to expect rest stops, where we needed to slow down and where we could speed up. We knew the timing and flow of the trip. And we were good at it! It feels unfair that Jesus would ask us to take a new route, when the old one is still perfectly functional and reassuringly familiar.

But there’s no question that Jesus knows best. Maybe the old route still IS perfectly functional…but the new one is more beautiful. Or more direct. Or allows us to pick up more travel companions along the way. It may be unfamiliar, but that doesn’t mean we should stubbornly refuse to follow it. Besides, every route was unfamiliar at one point—a new route is just a new opportunity to expand the parts of the world that we call home.

It’s not like Jesus is asking us to literally create new roads out of nothing—God is the one who lays the pavement. We’re simply charged to follow it and to invite others along with us. Jesus may not be in the driver’s seat anymore, and we may not be able to rely on our existing knowledge of the route, but we’re not driving blind. We just need to adjust our approach to the journey. We might not KNOW the road itself, but we understand the highway system and the signs used to direct us, so we’re able to PERCEIVE our way along an unfamiliar path by taking in information as we go. We don’t need to be familiar with the road to travel along it successfully.

According to Jesus, the disciples wanted to KNOW (γινωσκω/ginosko) what to expect in the next chapter of their ministry. But on a new road, we can’t rely on what we know. Instead, we need be able to PERCEIVE (ειδω/eido) the guidance that meets us along the way. That’s what the letter to the Ephesians tells us. The writer prays that we might come to know God through the perception (ειδω/eido) of our hearts—that we might perceive the hope of God’s call on our lives, the richness of God’s inheritance of redemption, and the greatness of God’s power. If we ground our journey in the reminders of these road signs, these truths, that pop up along the way, we don’t need to know what comes next. We’ve been given the authority, through the spirit of wisdom and revelation, to figure it out. But we’ll talk more about that next week on Pentecost.

None of us know how the pandemic will shape Church life going forward. Some communities, like ours, will continue down the unfamiliar path of livestreaming worship, incorporating technology into their ministries in a myriad of new ways. Those same congregations will have to figure out what ministry to a permanently hybrid community looks like. Others will take what they’ve learned about the needs of their community over the last year to completely revamp their mission programs. They’ll have to redistribute resources and call on new institutional relationships and new skills. Still others will find their identities completely transformed when many who left the community during the pandemic don’t come back. They’ll have to reimagine who God is calling their new congregational composition to be. Few of us will truly be returning to “business as usual”. But it’s less important for us to know exactly what’s coming down the road than it is for us to make sure we’re following the path that Jesus is directing us towards.

When we tell the same stories over and over again in the liturgical year and the lectionary cycle, it can be easy to slip into the belief that the journey of our faith is predictable, expected, and familiar. We lose the sense that the very first Christians (and later, the Reformers) had of this “ekklesia” being something that’s ALWAYS changing, ALWAYS revealing something new, ALWAYS being reinvented by the Holy Spirit. We’ll always have the comfort of our familiar stories and our intimate knowledge of God guiding us, but the path we’re traveling is never the same as it was fifty, ten, five, even one year ago. Don’t think of it as something to be resisted; think of it as an exciting road trip. We’ve worn these old routes out. Let’s hit the road and try traveling a new path. We’re in the driver’s seat, with our JPS guiding us—let’s not disappoint the one who’s showing us the way. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment