Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ascended Future

Sermon from June 5, 2011
(Easter 7 – Year A)
Acts 1: 6-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Over Memorial Day weekend, I spent some time with my parents in Houston.
My parents actually still live in the same house that they brought me home from the hospital to as a baby.
When I go to Houston, I even sleep in the same bedroom that was my room as a boy.

One might think that very little has changed in these last 40 plus years.
But every time I go back to Houston, it seems that so many things change.
La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex hangout in a strip center.
La Fiesta was the destination for me and my high school friends as we would sneak off campus for lunch.
However, last weekend, my parents and I drove right past this high school hang-out – yet the whole strip center had been torn down.
I asked my parents:
“What happened to La Fiesta?”

My mom replied:
“Oh, they bulldozed that down a while back to make way for some new loft apartments.”

A little further down the Katy Freeway, I noticed that Prince’s Hamburger’s had closed up.
Prince’s was where we would take our sons when they were little for old-fashioned burgers and milkshakes.
Incredulously, I asked my parents about what had happened to our favorite burger joint.
My dad replied:
“I think that Prince’s lost their lease months ago.”

Driving all over Houston, memories flood my mind of places and buildings and institutions that once were, but are there no more.
Many of the buildings and institutions of my past are now gone forever – and they will never be restored.

In the Book of Acts, the very last question asked of the risen Jesus by his followers is this:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The followers of the risen Jesus want to go back to the past.
Having been powerfully raised from the dead, Jesus could have easily taken everyone back to their comfortable past.
And as their very last question to the risen Jesus, the followers of Jesus ask him:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?

Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore soda fountains and 5 cent postage stamps and cold milk served from glass bottles?
Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore the 1980s utopia of The Cosby Show - and MTV will actually play music again?
Is this the time, Lord, when you will restore our nostalgic fishing boats and our favorite high school Tex-Mex hangout in Galilee?
Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of our past?”

Yet the risen Jesus completely ignores this request for a restoration of the past.
Instead, Jesus responds:
“The past is not to be focused on.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”

And with those final words, Jesus is ascended, beamed up into heaven.
With instructions for the future, Jesus’ body is taken up, as clouds take him out of sight.

Now, of course Jesus wants us to remember our rich past as the people of God.
Jesus wants us to remember his death - and to proclaim his resurrection.
Jesus takes bread and wine at the Last Supper and says:
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Yet the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not a call to wistful nostalgia, but the remembrance is a call to action, in the future.
For Jesus’ final instructions to us before he is beamed up to heaven is that, in the future, we will receive power, power to proclaim his message of love and hope to the ends of the earth.

During this past week, I had an unannounced visitor come to see me in my office.
This surprise visitor is a pastor who leads a church in the Waco area, but not one of the Episcopal parishes.
This pastor said that he was in the neighborhood, and just thought he’d stop by to chat.

It did not take long for me long to realize that this pastor needed my listening ear, as a friend and as a colleague.
This pastor was disturbed that the members of his congregation are mostly focused on the past - and are rarely focused on the future.
They are not focused on the new people that could be welcomed into the flock – and they are rarely focused on Jesus’ message.
He lamented that his church members are mainly focused on restoring the stained glass windows - and they are perturbed when a visitor sits in “their pew.”
These church members want to hold on to a 1950s model where father knows best and where little girls wear patent leather shoes to church and where women are welcome to bake cookies, but women are not welcome in the pulpit.

At conference and seminars I attend, I hear story after story after story of churches where people want to treat their church as a museum to the past, rather than focus on Christ’s message of power and witness into the future.
These churches, these museums to the past, cling to Jesus’ robes before he ascends into heaven and plead:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of the past?”

And with an air of dismissal to that misguided question, Jesus replies:
“In the future, you will receive power, power to proclaim my message to everyone.”

Churches and people who focus primarily on past glories - are also churches and people who are dying.
Yet churches and people who focus primarily on a message of hope and love in the future - are also churches and people who are thriving and alive in the Spirit!

Mark my words, in the next 10 to 15 years, we will see church after church after church shut their doors and close - because people are so preoccupied with Jesus restoring the “good old days.”
For Jesus’ final message to us before he ascends has nothing to do with preserving the institution of the Church.
But Jesus’ final message to us before he ascends has everything to do with a future-oriented power, the power to proclaim his message.
And Jesus’ message is that everyone is forgiven and loved.

And Jesus’ final message before he ascends into heaven does not just pertain to churches.
Jesus’ future-oriented message is for individuals, as well.
The question is whether we are looking backward - or upward.

Do you ask Jesus to restore the kingdom of your former glories?
Do you plead with Jesus to restore the days when you won trophies and blue ribbons in life?
Do you tug at Jesus’ robe to restore the days when your stomach was flat and your hair was full?
Do you prefer to focus on your past, rather than Jesus’ final words of hope as he ascends?

For from now and into the future, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
And you will proclaim Jesus’ message…to the ends of the earth.

So do not dwell on demolished restaurants and vacant glories from your past that will never be restored.
But break down the walls of human institutions - and receive the power of Jesus to love all people.
Do not be curators of a museum dedicated to the past.
But open the temple of your heart to forgiveness and love and hope for everyone.

Do not look back to the past.
But look up,
To an ascended future.


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