Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Campfire Story Gone Wrong

2 Kings 2:13-14, 19-25
June 26, 2011
Series: “Can You Believe That’s in the Bible?”
William G. Carter

Here is what an early church leader wrote about the Bible: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). My sermons this summer will explore the extent to which this is true. Tucked within the corners of scripture are a number of sayings, teachings, and stories that raise the question of their own usefulness. Out of a deep love for the Bible, I want to wrestle them until they give their blessing. And the first of these stories goes this way:

Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over…

Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the LORD, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

A friend tells about her son going to church camp. He was anxious and a little bit on edge. You know how church camps can be: the mattresses might be lumpy, the food can be uneven, and they force you to drink juice extracted from bugs. They make you play awkward games with kids that you do not know. And then there are all the Bible activities: Bible studies, Bible lessons, the conversations beneath the oak tree about a parable and what it might mean.

This young lad was not sure about all of that. It was his first time at camp, and he had not been coming to camp for years like the others. But then late one night, under cover of his sleeping bag with his flashlight on, he decided to thumb through the Bible and see what he might find. He found this story and laughed out loud. Elisha, cursing the boys - what a crazy thing to find in the Bible! And perhaps it was a love for the obnoxious, even the ridiculous, he declared, "That passage is my favorite Bible story" (of the few Bible stories he knew). It got him through the rest of the week. It still makes him chuckle.

Unknown to him, others at church camp knew this story. I have it on good authority that camp counselors know it, too. There are sources I cannot disclose who have told me this story, of Elisha the prophet cursing out the forty-two boys, is a favorite - maybe the favorite - of camp counselors. You know how church camp can be: the kids are brash, they do not behave themselves, you ask them to quiet down and they throw burnt marshmallows at one another. A counselor who works with unruly kids may quietly declare this story from 2 Kings is one of their favorites.

It became one of my favorites too. I don't remember how or where. I do remember how I was impressed by its strangeness, by its weirdness. It has an inexplicable quality. On the surface of it, you might distill a morality lesson about the appropriateness of children insulting adults. But it is hard to believe it is either inspired or useful. The story makes us scratch our heads.

Maybe that's why I used this passage to torment the Jehovah's Witnesses who knocked on my door. When I was serving my first church, some smiling Jehovah's Witnesses appeared on my doorstep. They came every Thursday and my wife wanted nothing to do with them. "They scare me," she said, "so get them out of here." Being a bit more hospitable, I suggested we pour them a cup of coffee. I would invite them in for a chat and she would disappear. They would lay out their elaborate plan of scripture and how everything fits together. I would smile and ask why they deny the Trinity or why they mistranslate the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Then they shared their pre-conceived notions and brain-washed ideas.

I would ask a question and they would say, "Well, it's right here in scripture," and whip out Bibles from their holsters. Then I would reply, "I'm glad you brought up the Bible," and open mine. "In fact," I said, "There is a passage that I struggle to understand," and they would lean forward with a smile. Then I would read to them 2 Kings 2:23-25. Some kids make fun of Elisha the prophet. They call him “Baldy,” “Chrome-Dome,” “Skin Top,” “Mountain Peak,” and “Turtle Wax Project.” In retaliation, he turns to curse them, and two she-bears came out of the woods to tear up forty-two of those Cub Scouts. “So tell me,” I said, “does the punishment fit the crime?”

First time I did that, the conversation ended quickly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses departed back to headquarters for further instructions. The next week, they returned with a tall friend with dark eyes. He was there to set me straight, so I said, "OK, tell me why this story is in the Bible."

He said, "Well, who does Elisha represent?" That was easy; Elisha was a prophet. He was God's representative.

"That's what the story is about," he explained. "If you insult God's representative, bad things are going to happen to you." With that, he stood and took his leave. It did not occur to me to insult him.

Later on, I got thinking about that. I am a pastor and that makes me God's representative. Suppose somebody votes against my annual cost of living increase or tells me that my hairline is thinning. Could I call a couple of she-bears out of the woods to act as my enforcers? I've considered that but somehow I don't think it would work.

And frankly, I don't think that is the way God works. God doesn't take commands from us, for one thing. And it also seems out of character with the kind of God we meet in the rest of the Bible. We have a God who is generally quieter and infinitely more subtle - a God who is patient, kind, never insisting on his own way, the very picture of love.

Even so, I can imagine how this story has been used, especially around the campfire. I have a collection of stories based on the Hebrew Bible. It is a series of stories about stories, and one of them is about this story. It suggests that our Bible text was a bedtime story told to an unruly child. "Hush," says the mama. “Settle down or Elisha will visit you.” It was enough to frighten a child into nightmares.

Well, if that's the point of the story, it strikes me as kind of odd. What is it doing here in scripture?

It helps to know the wider context. Elisha has just said goodbye to his mentor Elijah. Elijah was caught up in the power of God, swept up to heaven on a chariot of fire with fiery horses. He was one of the few souls taken up to heaven without being buried. And before he departed, Elisha asked, "Can you give me a dose of the same Holy Spirit that lives in you? I am going to need a double dose of the Spirit." This is going to be hard thing to grant you, says his mentor, but stay close and it will be granted you. With that, Elijah is swept up into heaven.

So what does Elisha do? He picks up the prophet's scarf, the mantle from around his neck. And in the power of his mentor, in the power given him by God, he takes this thing and whacks the river. The Jordan River obeys and split open for him, just like the sea had once parted for the prophet Moses. Elisha walks through without getting his toes wet. He has the power.

Immediately after that, he runs into a team of prophets. They have a little chat, and the company of prophets declares, "He has the spirit of Elijah. He has the power!" They want to go looking for Elijah, to see if he ever landed in another valley after being swept into the sky. Elisha knows that is fruitless and tells them so.

Right after that, some city people find him to say, "We have a good city, but the water supply is bad. It makes people sick. It makes the women miscarry their babies." So Elisha goes to the spring, sprinkles some salt into the spring and the water becomes strangely purified, even to this day. It becomes tasty and sparkling. Elisha has the power.

Then our story is told. After such displays of power and authority, after such a transfer of Spirit from one generation to the next, some wayward kids dare to make fun of the prophet Elisha.

I believe the storyteller puts the tale here to demonstrate the power and authority of the prophet. Here is a man who by the sound of his voice can beckon the forces of nature to defend him and his reputation, and implicitly, God's reputation. But it still does trouble me. Taken by itself, this story might lead us to believe false things about God. It could lead you to believe that God is destructive and so are his messengers. And I don't happen to believe that.

I do think God has a time frame for everything and everyone. That every human institution is not only planted but plucked up. Remember, for instance, the message and call of another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah. He was called as a young person. God said, "I appoint you over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to build up and plant (Jer. 1:10)." The appropriate word comes for the appropriate season. Is this the season of plucking up or planting?

You know, that's a healthy question to ask, because we live with this American illusion that things are always going to increase, that things will always get larger, that institutions once established will always be in place. And that is not true. "All people are grass; the grass withers, the flower fades; only the word of our God will stand forever." (Isaiah 40:6). It's only God who sticks around.

So perhaps the story is not about the destructiveness of a God who tosses yesterday's grass into the fire, or tosses the children to the wild beasts. No, there's something else here. I think what is going on is the same reminder of what the kids out by campfires in the camps readily understand: that there is a God out there in the hills, and that God is unmanageable, unpredictable. Sometimes, even fierce.

I can recall my own experiences from camp. Not church camp for me, but Boy Scout camp. We had paddled a canoe toward the middle of Cayuga Lake, and suddenly a storm blew in from nowhere. The dark thunderhead stood three miles high and lightning flashed all around us. Our lives were suddenly at risk. No matter how much praying we did, no matter how much we trusted the Jesus who walked on the water and told the storm to shut up, there was no sign this would improve our situation. God is wild; God has established a huge world with interlocking systems, many of them indifferent to us.

There is a fierceness to God, as evidenced by living in God's world. Anybody who spends any time outdoors also knows this. How many times this past week have you been caught in a thunderstorm, wild and unpredictable?

Belden Lane has done a good bit of backpacking. Lane is a retired professor in the Midwest. He has spent time in outdoor camps and far-off monasteries, but he finds himself drawn to wild landscapes. He tells about getting lost in a box canyon at Ghost Ranch, our Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. As he stumbled around, trying to find his way, the truth smacks him in the face: he could stay lost, even die, and nobody would even notice. It was an overwhelming emotion, almost pushed him to his knees. He found himself fearing God, in the best sense.

He said to himself, "Self, you don't run the world. There is Someone much bigger and wilder than me. I wouldn't know this if I sat inside the cubicle and played it safe. If I remained inside the air-conditioned church and pursued a life of Christian comfort, I would miss out on a great truth about God. God is awe-some."

He's right about that, you know. Some churches will even put cushions on the pews to make life more comfortable. We must let ourselves be lulled into complacency. God is wild, unmanageable, and the most faithful witnesses of God are the ones who point to this divine power, this astounding grace, this fierce mercy.

Even so, it's not the only kind of story in our Bible, is it! In fact, there are rebuttals on every other page. Remember that other story today from the Gospel of Luke? Jesus was getting ready to visit a Samaritan village, but the people there wanted nothing to do with him. James and John became indignant; don't they get it? The people are refusing Jesus! James and John turn to him and say, "Lord, how about if we call up to heaven and command fire to come down and blast these people away?" That's the kind of thing the prophets did. Elisha's predecessor Elijah did it. And Jesus looked at them and said, "Shut up! I did not come to destroy human lives but to save them.[1] We are going somewhere else."

Here is a healthy reminder that, for all of God's power, we also experience a good measure of God's restraint. If God was only in the business of blasting away those who give the temporary insult, none of us would be left. So God restrains God’s self, and refrains from punishment. Indeed so much of scripture reminds us that there is more to God's story than merely retaliating on some schoolboys. God is a God of justice, mercy, and steadfast love. God is a shepherd with a great big staff to poke wolves in the nose and chase them away. God is the One who guards our lives and keeps us forever.

So I think about this today, a story first told around the campfires of faith. Whether it's the parent who tells the child to wise up, or the child who reads this and laughs, "Can you believe this is in the Bible?" I think about this, because, quite frankly, those who teach the Christian faith are under obligation to tell the whole story. Not just the favorite part or the crazy part or the wild part, but the whole story. We need the holy story of a God who is fierce, who creates the blue marble of Earth out of nothing and then blows Holy Wind upon it to keep it completely alive. God has that kind of power. If we spend all our time indoors we will rarely see it.

But there's more to God than sheer power. This wild, unmanageable God loves us so much that he did not spare his own little boy. Tell that part of the story too.

[1] This is a variant text for Luke 9:56.

(c) William G. Carter

All rights reserved

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How a Church Gets Started

Acts 2:1-12
June 12, 2011
William G. Carter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Her name is Opal and she is new to town. Just ten years old, she has moved to a small town with her single-parent father. She calls him “The Preacher,” because that’s what he is. Seven years ago, her mother moved out somewhere, preferring the bottle to her husband and little girl. So Opal and the Preacher have moved to Naomi, Florida to start over – and to start a little church.

One of my daughters introduced me to Opal through a children’s book called Because of Winn Dixie. We went to see the movie when it came out. There was Opal, sitting in the front row of her daddy’s store front church, cheering him on while he preached and prayed. It was a bit different from our family’s life, but not so much that my own little girl couldn’t relate.

Opal doesn’t know a lot of people. When she moved with the Preacher, she lost all her friends. She wants to desperately to meet some kids like herself. Sadly all the others aren’t much like her. They have their own friends and aren’t very interested in including her. All she has is her daddy, the Preacher, who is so busy trying to start a church out of nothing. Even then, she describes him as an old turtle, always sticking his head in his turtle shell and scared of the real world; he is still so sad about how her mother ran away, so he throws himself into his work.

Well, one day Opal wanders into the Winn-Dixie supermarket. She discovers a mangy dog making a mess. The store manager is yelling at the dog and Opal says, “That’s my dog.” The manager tells her to take that dog away so she does, and she names him “Winn-Dixie.” Opal says, “It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor.”

The great thing about Winn-Dixie is that he has a way of making friends. He’s so funny looking that everybody stops to say hello. So friendly that everybody wants to meet him. And since Opal says, “Winn-Dixie is my dog,” suddenly she begins to make friends, too.

One of her new friends is Miss Franny Block, a kind and strange librarian. She runs the Herman W. Block Memorial Library and she knows a lot of stories. Miss Franny says one day she was reading a big thick book called War and Peace, and she looked up, and saw a bear standing in front of her. To scare it away, she threw the book at the bear. The bear took the book and went away, and Miss Franny has never forgotten it.

Then Opal met a woman named Gloria Dump. She’s blind. She is getting over a bad addiction to alcohol, and she hides out in a shack surrounded by a lot of overgrown brush. Gloria has a tree in her backyard with a hundred and ten beer bottles hanging from it. She calls it her “mistake tree” and says it is haunted with the ghosts of all the mistakes she has made.

Opal needs to get a leash and collar for Winn-Dixie, so she gets a job sweeping up at the local pet store. That’s where she meets Otis. He works there too. Otis is shy, a little nervous, and embarrassed that he recently got out of jail. Opal finds out that he plays the guitar – that is his passion – so she gets Otis to play her a song.

Suddenly she finds herself with a number of new friends, because of Winn-Dixie. Her daddy, the Preacher, hasn’t had much success starting his church. Apparently there are too many other congregations in Naomi, Florida. But Opal has gathered these new friends. She learns something from each one of them. She discovered that each of them has some sadness in their lives – just like her and the Preacher.

It’s not so different from our story in the book of Acts. There’s this odd combination of different people. They have some sadness in their lives, too. They had gathered around Jesus, as lovable as a puppy with a good sense of humor – and he left them, not once but twice. Ten days before, he had gone up into the sky, as far as they could tell. They are left behind, left with one another, left with his mother, for God’s sake! And what do they do? They pray - - and they hide. They stay out of sight.

This is how the church gets started: some scared and sad people are huddled together. Outside their door is a major religious festival – it’s the Feast of Pentecost, the annual event when Israel remembers how God spoke, how God gave the Bible as a gift to all the people. And how do the disciples of Jesus mark the moment? By staying inside, with doors locked, window shades drawn. Safe from every act of God – or so they thought. And then all heaven breaks loose.

The miracle of Pentecost is not the great wind. It’s not the fire. The miracle is not the speaking in many languages, as dramatic as that was. The miracle of Pentecost is the forming of a community. A new human entity is created out of these sad, lonely people. It was ripe to happen. And the only way to explain its formation is to point to God, to point to the invisible God, and to declare that this invisible Spirit intends for them to be together.

On the first Sunday of August, we will begin to celebrate our congregation’s one hundredth year. The plans for an extended celebration are coming together and we are going to have a lot of fun. We will have a lot of parties, a number of special worship services. We will bring back some of the old duffers who used to preach here, as well as some of the sons and daughters of the church who now preach and prophesy. And I, for one, am curious to hear how all of this got started.

I know there were some praying women who started a missionary society. I know they convinced their husbands to cough up the bucks to purchase land and construct a sanctuary. I know the congregation had a very modest start and that we have always struggled to have adequate parking. And for some of those years, the preachers came and went, and the people came and went.

But underneath it all, how did it all get started? It’s not enough to merely list the founders who signed the charter. It would be superficial to do an organizational analysis. Why would anybody ever think to start a church? Whose idea is this?

Pentecost tells us that church is God’s idea. That God huffs and puffs on a gathered group of people – and suddenly they speak of Christ’s resurrection. Suddenly they are no longer scared and alone. Suddenly they are not bound by the ghosts surrounding the “mistake tree.” Suddenly they are a diverse community with only Christ in common.

Luke is pretty insistent on the diversity. He reminds us that the Pentecost holiday was an international event. All kinds of Jews came back to Jerusalem from every corner of the earth. On his list were no less than fifteen different countries and regions where Jews had scattered. As they come back to celebrate the Living Word of God, this time God speaks again – and all of them can hear and understand. This is God’s doing.

In a way, it’s the undoing of the ancient story of the Tower of Babel. According to that story, all the people of the world decided to get organized and build a tower all the way up to God’s heaven. God looked down, laughed at the human presumption, and effectively sneezed all over the arrogant plan. With a blink of the eye, God confused everybody’s speech – and that’s the primal legend of how different languages began.

But on Pentecost, God undoes the confusion. God brings the scattered nations together. And for the moment, they understand what God is doing. All of them understand. That’s the miracle. As Sheldon Sorge points out,

“People from every part of the human family are brought into the community of the redeemed, not because they wanted in, but because God grabbed them by the ears. How could they ignore a message that came to them in their native languages through mouths that knew nothing about them, their culture, or their language. The Galilee eleven had no demographic study to help them figure out their target population. They had no clue what they were saying – it was all God’s work, God’s word, God’s way. At Pentecost, a band of strangers with nothing in common ends up with everything in common. What starts out as a disparate crowd becomes a single fellowship.”

Down in Naomi, Florida, wherever that is, a girl named Opal, a sad preacher, and a mangy dog named Winn-Dixie find themselves with a whole new assortment of friends. Opal decides they must celebrate with a part. Everybody agrees to come. The old librarian brings a box of throat lozenges. Somebody else brings a jar of pickles, declaring, “I've been to several parties with no pickles...and not one of them was any fun.” Sad, old Gloria Dump turns to the preacher and says, “I think you should pray and bless this gathering.” Sad, old Gloria with her ghost tree full of beer bottles wants the preacher to give a blessing!

So the preacher starts to pray. Just then, God thunders and a huge rainstorm blows into town. The little party is drenched by the abundant rain, coming down, as it were, out of heaven. That strange assortment of new friends is soaked and baptized. And Opal says to the ghost tree, “My heart doesn’t feel so empty anymore.”

That’s the miracle of Pentecost, whether in thunder and rain or wind and fire. It’s the miracle that God repeats over and over, wherever unlikely friendships are forged, whenever people are strangely empowered to live together in community, wherever and whenever empty hearts are filled with consolation.

The church gets started every Pentecost, as God comes invisibly but powerfully. Strangers find themselves curiously bound together by a deeper love than they thought possible. Those who were frightened like turtles peep out of their shells with something life-giving to say. Whenever that happens, I say it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle that can happen on any given day.

God breathes on us, lonely disconsolate children, and one more time the church is born again.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Waiting for the Wind to Blow

Acts 1:6-14
Easter 7 / Confirmation
June 5, 2011
William G. Carter

Here is one more Easter story:

So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, “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.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

I don’t know about the experience of the young adults who join our church today, but there is one thing I remember from my confirmation day. It was the big moment in the service, the time when we would say the right words and be counted as true believers in the church. And a classmate leaned over and whispered, “Do you think it’s OK that I’m not sure I believe all of this stuff?”

I remember, not because it shocked me, but because I had been wondering the same exact thing.

Who knows what I had really expected as a confirmation student? I was a seventh grader, after all. Maybe someone had planted the notion in my head that, if I went through the class, all mysteries in the universe would be revealed, and all confusing doctrines explained. I can’t recall if that is what I thought, but I can say that did not happen.

Somewhere in the scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah promises the day will come when God will write his teachings on everybody’s hearts. At confirmation time, if God was writing on my heart, it was in pencil. Or in invisible ink.

Years later, I learned this is the way faith works. Understanding does not come quickly. Saint Augustine preached a famous sermon many centuries ago, and said, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”

We have to keep at it, if only because we are up against so much. Perhaps in our gut is some dullness of spirit, some spiritual boredom, so it is hard for us to hope. As for me, and for others, it is a dullness of brain, and it is difficult to make the right connections. Sometimes we want to believe, really want to believe, but life is smacking us around, so we wonder if there really is a God, much less a God like the one they have been telling us about.

So it is some comfort for me to hear again this story from the first chapter of the book of Acts. About forty days after Easter, Jesus gathered his friends one last time. They ask him a political question, “Is this when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It’s the wrong question. They were still looking for a politician Messiah – a nationalist king, a warrior who would demolish the Roman Empire. After Jesus slaps his forehead, he says, “It’s not for you to know. That is God’s business, not yours.” Then he promises they will be his witnesses. The Wind of God will blow on them and they will get power. Then he is taken up out of sight, and they are left standing around.

That’s the part of the story that I like most: they are standing around. They spent three years with Jesus and they didn’t learn it all. They heard he was raised from the dead, and they didn’t believe it yet. They see him risen and alive, and they still don’t understand. If there’s hope for these disciples, there has to be hope for me – and for you.

In the church, we say a lot of things are true. Some of them, we can’t prove quite yet. Certainly we want them to be true. We trust they are true. In the meantime, we may have to wait until the insights seep into our hearts and brains. That’s how it is with faith.

Somebody told me about a lecture at Yale. A teacher from the Orthodox Church was giving a talk on religious beliefs, and how the various creeds developed. A smart student stuck up his hand and said, “What can I do, if there are some things in the Apostles’ Creed that are impossible to believe?” The Orthodox priest replied, “Well, you say them anyway. Keep at it, you may learn it by heart.”

The student was frustrated and said, “But what I can’t believe some of it, like, say, the Virgin Birth?” He got the same response, “You just say it, especially if you can’t believe it. It will come to you eventually.”

The student raised his voice, “But what I don’t believe it?” The priest replied, “It’s not your creed. It belongs to the church. It’s been around for very long time.” The student looked at him, shocked and confused. So the priest added, “Eventually it may come to you. For some, it takes longer than for others.”

Now, I’m sure some would be annoyed at that priest, just as the student was. His demeanor reminds me of the conversation from Alice in Wonderland. Alice says, “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen says, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes, I’ve believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The church has a list of many impossible beliefs, among them from our text that Jesus flew up into the sky and out of sight. Well, at least we can believe that part about being out of sight. Most of the time, he is out of sight.

But notice what happens: two “men in white” appear beside them. (That’s code language for the angels on Easter, who announced the resurrection at the tomb. There were two of them, dressed in white.) They are angels, but they don’t seem to cause any great stir. And with their feet firmly on the ground they ask, “Why are you looking up into the sky?”

And then what happens: the disciples go back to Jerusalem, the same old city. They go to the Upper Room, the same room where they are staying. It’s the same old crowd, the eleven of them, along with Jesus’ mother Mary, and a few familiar women. Same people, same familiar faces. Then they pray, and they pray again, and they keep waiting.

As we wait for faith to gain understanding, as we wait for the Spirit to come and fill us with all believing, as we wait for the Wind of God to blow into our hearts and minds, what do we do? We keep at it. We stay among the same congregation that has shaped us. We remain near the same places where we have learned and grown along the way. And we keep praying. We stay together as church and live out the Christian faith.

We don’t need to have everything in the universe all figured out. Some of what we need will come when we most need to know it. If your faith is anything like mine, there are some truths that I don’t understand, and then the fog lifts and I see clearly and say, “So that’s what this is all about!” And then the fog rolls back in and I no longer see clearly what I used to see.

I have learned that that’s OK. We don’t have to know everything, comprehend everything, or even have the right words for everything. And do you know why that’s OK? It’s because of the central event in our scripture story: Jesus goes up into heaven.

He doesn’t evaporate into the air and go everywhere, as if there are trace amount of Christ in the atmosphere. And He doesn’t float up to an empty asteroid where the astronauts have never spotted him. No, the Risen Christ keeps rising – he “goes up” says the storyteller, up to the place where he rules as the Lord of all things. Nothing can occur in our lives unless he gives it the freedom to happen. Nothing down here can snatch us away because he is “up there.” Jesus rules with the Father God, sitting, in royal speech, “at the right hand of God,” that is, in the place of power and authority. When the time is right, Christ and the Father blow their Heavenly Breath upon us – we call it the Wind of God, the Spirit of God – and then we have our moments of understanding when the faith of our hearts is confirmed by the faith in our brains.

A friend was telling me just this week that he had coffee with a Lutheran. You have to watch out for the Lutherans, he said, for they are so very bright and articulate. This coffee date was no different. My friend Sheldon got into a religious conversation with this Lutheran, who happened to be the bishop of Pittsburgh. They were talking about this Bible story, and the Bishop said, “You know, there is only one line in the Apostles’ Creed that is written in the present tense. Do you know what it is?”

Sheldon started going over the creed in his head. A lot of it was placed in the past: God created the heavens and the earth, Jesus was born to Mary, Jesus was crucified and raised. A little bit is even placed in the future tense: “He will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” There is only one line of the creed that happens here and now: “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

That is where we fit into the great story of Christian faith: we live under Jesus’ feet, with him ruling over all things. We live with him praying for us, and we pray to him on the place of all power. And we don’t worry if we don’t have the whole “faith thing” worked out. All we have to do is trust that he is going to work it out, and that we are part of his present-tense story.

So we gather today, among bluesy guitars and uptight Presbyterians, among patient children and squirming adults. We gather with teenagers both curious and bored, with long-timers and short-termers coming to the Table of God. We come to taste a small piece of bread and to have a hidden banquet opened up to us. We sip from the cup because we thirst for the mercy of Christ.

Maybe this is the day. Maybe this is the moment. Maybe this is the time and place where God becomes real to somebody here. Should that happen, tell the rest of us about it. And we will remember with our hearts what we have heard in our ears: that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

(c) William G. Carter
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