Monday, April 21, 2008

Up in the Air - Sermon for Easter 7

The following sermon was preached in James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a communion service preceding commencement, May 17, 2002. While many of the references are particular to the setting, the general themes (where to look for God; the awkwardness of losses, in-between times and transitions;it remembering our own stories in light of vocation and mission) are transferrable to other settings.

One explanatory note: the chapel was decorated in part by cords hung at irregular places throughout the space. Graduates and other Union students had been invited to hang from these cords symbols from their time at Union (a backpack, theology books, a stethoscope, baby clothes, a chaplain's vest from the WTC recovery), requiring partipants in the service to take note of them and also negotiate their movements around the objects.

Up in the Air

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:6-11

Welcome. To family and friends and fellow students and strangers, welcome. You have come through a lot to get here, and we appreciate you hanging in there. I hope you know how much your support means.

Right an awkward time. For some, non-Christians in a Christian institution, being asked to sing “Come, Lord Jesus,” is a jarring interruption. For some, this is an unfamiliar place, and it’s not easy to make your way around. We’ve complicated that here in worship by hanging bits of our Union lives in awkward places, and this service, created just for this occasion, is not something anyone is familiar with.

It’s an awkward moment in the school year. For most of us, the work is done...but things aren’t quite over yet. There is something more still to happen. At least that what the graduates are hoping!

It’s the same if you follow the church year. Right now we’re sitting between Ascension, where Jesus was lifted up into the clouds out of sight, and Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven, to fill the disciples with power and energy and gifts for God’s work in the world. Up, down. Up, down.

At the end of my three year program here, especially at the end of this past year, I find myself feeling something like what those disciples must have felt on that hill. “Did you see that? What just happened?” If your life is anything like mine, there is something up in the air, something unsettled, something going on which isn’t quite clear yet.

I remember the first time I turned my eyes unto the hill that is Union Seminary. I kept running into people who had studied here, who taught here, and it seemed a beacon of hope, a place where vital theology was happening, where faith was formed, and where faith was found precisely in the process of testing what is true, what is real. I took a little class here through Auburn, that odd little seminary attached to Union. For me, it functioned as a gateway school, one class led to another and another, and eventually I found myself mainlining divinity. It was on February 15, 1993 that I used the library for the first time, and pretty soon I figured out how to look like I belonged, so I could sneak in to do reading.

Ever since then, I knew that, at 121st and Broadway, just over the crown of Harlem Heights, was a place I could look to with hope and expectation and just a bit of envy and awe, a place where people were doing Things That Mattered.

Eventually, I came to see that my desire for that light on a hill, this strange schoolhouse of God’s, was a call to turn more than my eyes here, but to ascend the mountain, to make the study of God’s business my business. I think some of you have heard that call too.

I bet you can remember some of the important steps along the way. The turning points, the places, the people, always the people, along that journey of turning to that which is holy...

It seems like just a matter of weeks, but it was almost three years ago that our Seminary Pastor Annie Ruth Powell, dressed in flowing robes, welcomed me and other entering students by telling us that we each had gifts from God. She said it like she believed it, and wouldn’t you know it – she was right!

There’s no way I can tell you very much about what’s gone on these past three years, and nobody is here to listen to that kind of travelogue. But I can tell you a bit about what it’s like to stand there on a hill, looking at hopes and dreams disappear up into the sky, wondering what’s going to happen next.

A year ago, some of us were in this chapel the morning our friend and teacher and spiritual leader Annie Ruth died. Eight months ago we were here when the World Trade Center fell, nearly three thousand souls rising up in smoke and fire. During this year we have planned and debated the future of this school, what Union will look like in the coming years. There have been births and miscarriages, illnesses and healings, deaths and surprising discoveries of new life. So many things up in the air...

This, I think, is what’s going on for those disciples. The Jesus they’d lost once, and then found risen from the dead, is now gone again. While he was with them, he always had an answer, a plan. They usually wouldn’t understand it, but it’s comforting to think that somebody knows what’s going on. And now...he’s gone, and they look after him where they saw him last.

And “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

Isn’t that an amazing thing? That is not the kind of thing you expect to hear in church! “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”

It’s all the more puzzling because these men, these angels, then say Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” So shouldn’t we have our eye firmly fixed on the last place we saw him? What goes up, must come down... Jesus went up, so surely he’s up there, and when he comes again it will be from on high. Right?

It’s a trick question, you know... My time at Union has taught me well, but not always in the ways I expected. I turned my eyes to this hill. I looked up to Union. And I was not disappointed. This school has indeed been a place that has helped direct my attention to God. And when it has done that, it has been by asking the angels’ question: “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”

Now don’t get me wrong. Heaven is wonderful. We need heaven, there’s a need for holiness and beauty and purity and radiance, all the things we hope for in any decent heaven. But the big problem with looking up to heaven is that you can’t see the person next to you.

No, when Jesus comes again, he’ll come the same way he came before. If you want to see Jesus, don’t be staring up into heaven. Look to the nearest manger. Look to the people who struggle each day for their daily bread. Look downtown to the pit that was the WTC. Come down off of this hill to the poor of this city, this nation, this world. Share something of yourself with another, and take something of another into yourself.

When Union is Union it’s not because it’s a light shining high on the hills of Harlem Heights. When Union is Union, it is a tent, a temporary dwelling. Its focus is not on renovating the buildings, or beautifying the Quad, or building the endowment, or saving the Library – even though all these may be good and necessary things. But we should know better than to direct our attention to the towers of this world. However good it is to know there’s a heaven, if we’re looking for God, we’d better look lower. And we just might find that heaven is a lot closer than we think.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Krister Stendahl

I received news last night that Krister Stendahl has died. For many years, Bishop Stendahl was one of the leading lights of the Lutheran church. First known for his influential scholarship on the Apostle Paul, his academic work influenced his ministry. His understanding of a Jewish Paul working in the multicultural Mediterranean fed Stendahl's own passion for religious openness, tolerance, and friendship. As Bishop of Stockholm and Professor at Harvard Divinity School, his leadership role helped many in the church find legitimacy and hope in that kind of vision.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord: And let light perpetual shine upon him.

Few leaders of the church in our day - perhaps ever - have combined his depth of scholarship, pastoral discernment, and unfailing kindness and graciousness. While taking strong and controversial positions (on the full inclusion of women and gay people into the church, on the "Jewishness" of the early Christian movement, on the religious openness to other faiths), Stendahl was irenic, open to persuasion, and would listen carefully to anyone.

I had the pleasure of hearing him and speaking with him a number of times towards the end of his active public teaching, where it seemed that no conference of Lutherans was complete without his presence. His personal kindness was mirrored by his preaching and teaching, for the non-judgmental attitude with which he approached personal interactions was reflected in his vision of a gracious ekklesia. In particular, he helped break open some of the more exclusivist readings of church tradition, arguing that the early church's proclamation of Jesus as the One is extravagent "love language," and needs to heard in that way, not as a constriction of the ways in which God works.

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.... But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.... Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Romans 3:9,21,29-30

I invite you to leave your own reflections and comments here.

You may also wish to view and help develop Krister Stendahl's Wikipedia entry.

The picture of Bishop Stendahl is from the Harvard Divinity School website, and presumably copyright by them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin King, prophet & martyr

We would like to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. as our own, and believe we stand with him. May it be so.

But King was controversial, opposed, and, at the end of his life, abandoned. As he became more radical, he sought to confront oppressive power in fundamental and far-reaching ways, challenging warmakers and poverty profiteers. His support, his approval, his reputation suffered.

Perhaps it is right that our nation, which justly wishes to celebrate Dr. King and claim him as its own, observes his birthday as a national holiday. But in the church, it is more appropriate to commemorate martyrs on the date of their death.

While we think of martyrs as those who have been killed for their faith, the word means "witness." A martyr is one who gives witness. Martin King gave witness to several things I would like to remember today.

King as disciple

King's oratory was, of course, shaped by his church tradition. But his preaching was in the service of his mission, called by God to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the oppressed, to change the hearts of people and the circumstances in which we live. King did not come to justice simply because it is right, but because it is the will of a just and loving God, who had spoken to him, and who he strove to know and follow.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision, his strength, his redemption came to him from a Source that outweighed other concerns. We do not follow in his footsteps unless we also touch that sacred spirit of holy good which animated and supported not only Dr. King, but countless others seeking to live faithfully to the call to justice.

King as organizer

King did nothing alone. His success came not because his cause was right, and not because of his own immense talent, but because his personal ability and the righteousness of his cause were joined to a movement of organized people, and organized money, which made power.

Ghandi's influence upon King (through King's teacher Howard Thurman) has been much noted in King's practice of creative, non-violent resistance. But Ghandi was also a premier community organizer and coalition-builder. King used his experience as a church leader coupled with his study of Ghandi and the assistance of American-developed organizers to work together and achieve change.

Working with others has an important benefit beyond simply building power. In community, you have the chance to "practice what you preach," and begin to realize the kind of society you envision.

Courage in the face of opposition

We do not always recall the personal cost of engaging in a struggle for justice. In the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, as King emerged as a leader, the pressure became intense as he was jailed, threatened, accused of financial impropieties, and opposition strove to split the boycott coalition.

Clayborne Carson describes a pivotal moment:
King reached bottom on Jan. 27 when a particularly threatening late-night telephone call brought him to "the saturation point." He went to his kitchen and sat before an untouched cup of coffee, exhausted, his courage "all but gone." As he considered ways to "move out of the picture without appearing a coward," he began to pray aloud. "At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before." ["The Unexpected Emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr."]

This was not a one time conversion. Setbacks and fears persisted until the end of his life. One of my pivotal images of Dr. King comes from his last days. Leading a march in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, an ugly scene is developing. The March would end in violence, when students at the end of the procession used the signs they carried to break windows of businesses and looting ensued. At one point, a car or truck backfired, and King visibly flinched, expecting it to be a gunshot. I believe the following picture was taken shortly before that moment...

Dr. King in Memphis, March 28, 1968 (JACK THORNELL / AP)

Take note how the leaders are holding onto one another. Their linked arms knit them together in a web of accountability, support, and shared mission. They will stand or fall together.

We do well to remember, and take courage from, the human King. The very real fear of death, of injury, of failure, of humiliation, of ostracism did not magically disappear because he was doing God's will as he understood it. But his fear did not have the last word. Echoing louder in King's ear was God's word of love and hope, and God's promise of a beloved community where peace and justice reign.

Almighty God, in every age you have blessed us with witnesses to your vision for this world. In Martin King we see to this day your hope for peace and justice, and your word that, walking with you, the promised land awaits. Grant that we may step past our fears and into the work to which you are calling us, to proclaim in word and deed your liberating power. Amen.