7 Easter A: Catching Fire!

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Texts for Preaching

Acts 1:6-14 

When they were together for the last time they asked, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now? Is this the time?”

He told them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is God’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when theHoly Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all overJudea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared – in white robes! They said, “You Galileans! – why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”

So they left the mountain called Olives and returned to Jerusalem. It was a little over half a mile. They went to the upper room they had been using as a meeting place: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas, son of James.

They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included. Also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers. 

Liturgical Reading
Excerpt from “Holy the Firm” by Annie Dillard

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in affine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a splattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far a I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax – a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning – only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

Good morning.

I want to begin with something
that may be obvious to some
and startling to others,
but needs to be said now and again.

On the Church calendar
this is not Memorial Day weekend.
Today, this year anyway,
it is the last Sunday of Easter season,
and on that Sunday we always hear a piece
of Jesus’ farewell in the Gospel of John.

The bigger point is,
in the Church, on Sunday,
we do not celebrate national holidays.

Whether it is Columbus Day
or Veterans Day,
Memorial Day
or Mother’s Day,

Independence Day
or Presidents Day,
on Sundays we do not mix
the celebration of Holy Eucharist
with any nationalistic holiday or cause.

That is because Christianity
and the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
has no nation.
Christianity has no national loyalty.
and our vows as baptized Christians,
does not recognize nationalism, internationalism,
partisanship, or any other secular ideology that exists.

In fact, every time in history a church or religion
has aligned itself with a national ideology
it created ugliness and spawned bitter violence.

Now all of us live with divided loyalties
and divided minds, and multiple commitments.
That is normal, expected, and understood.
But in this space, in this sanctuary,
there is no flag of nation
and no pledge of allegiance to party or constitution.

Therefore, while all of us
may well have loved ones on our minds
and in our prayers today,
and especially those who may have died
in the service of their country –
whether on a battlefield,
or in the line of duty,
or as a servant and advocate for justice –
we are celebrating Eucharist today.

So I hope no one is surprised
or disappointed
if they arrive on Mother’s Day
or Memorial Day
or 4th of July weekend,
and the theme of the Eucharist on such days
does not even mention the holiday.
Instead, our focus will always be
on the theme of that liturgical season,
or the sacred moment itself,
or on the open table we offer,
or the spiritual practice of our baptism.
It does not mean we do not care about
other cultural and civic events,
but simply that we let those be celebrated
elsewhere and on other grounds,
while on this holy ground
we gather for this sacred meal.

(Even that most special of all days
will not be observed here in a few weeks:
Father’s Day).

Now for the real sermon.

The editors of the Gospels had a problem.
It is one routinely faced in Hollywood and on television.
What were those Gospel editors supposed to do
for the last episode
after the amazing surprise ending
created by the resurrection?
How were they going to have Jesus exit
a second time?

It’s not unlike the dilemma faced
by television serials,
in which the season ends
with a main character getting killed.
What we often discover
at the beginning of the Fall Season
is that the character wasn’t actually killed as we thought,
and we are shown how he or she was saved.

Jesus is executed on the cross,
dies, and is buried.
The level of physical abuse
from the flogging alone was enough to kill him,
let alone the grueling physical torture on the cross.
His bloody body was laid in the tomb
and a big rock rolled over the doorway.
The tomb was sealed.

It was over.
It was finished.
But wait!
Unexpectedly, the stone is mysteriously dislodged
and the tomb is shown empty.

Jesus’ three-year ministry
is act one;
the betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution
act two;
the resurrection is act three.

But the author of the Book of Acts,
who is also the author of Luke’s gospel,
has a dilemma.
The Book of Acts
is the story of the earliest followers of Jesus,
and it has to figure out an exit for Jesus
before the next chapter can be written.
So the author of Luke-Acts creates an epilogue,
and has Jesus exit
the way other great prophets of Israel exited:
into the clouds.
Elijah did it
and so did Moses.

It is such a natural way
for a holy man or woman to exit
that Buddhism is full of ascending mystics too.
And in Islam, Jesus disappears like that as well.
In fact, the Quran tells us
Jesus did not really die on the cross.
It suggests that in fact,
he may have passed death altogether
when he was lifted up and taken directly to God.
That is because it is inconceivable in the Quran,
that a prophet chosen by God for such purpose
would ever be allowed to be tortured and executed
at the hands of enemies.
So of course he was taken up.

Figuring out a fitting exit for such godly humans
is a difficult challenge
because, let’s face it,
death is messy.
A torturous death is the messiest,
not to mention the most shocking and scandalous.

It strikes me that Jesus’ death is like that moth
in Annie Dillard’s pericope of illumination.
Jesus’ messy, torturous
and grotesque death
is a wick of holiness…for us.
His death continues to illuminates the darkness
long after,
as does a star that burned out
a hundred million years ago
yet flicker in the night sky tonight.

To appropriate Annie Dillard’s
exquisite description and apply it to Jesus:
The spectacular skeleton on the cross
acts as a wick.
Jesus keeps burning.
The holiness that fuels this fire
rises in the dead Messiah’s body
from his pierced and soaking abdomen
to his thorax
to the jagged holes in his hands,
and he widens into a flame –
a saffron-yellow flame
that opens a bud of light in our darkness
as if a bloom into the light of spring.

I love that image
because it reminds us of a hard
but spectacular truth
residing at the core of our spiritual wisdom.
It is a wisdom that may be so obvious,
so brilliantly radiant,
that we live in its light
but forget about its presence.

We are reminded of it
in our baptismal promises
every time we recite them,
and Jesus burning luminously upon the cross
reminds us of it as well.
In fact, anyone who has ever loved
has been reminded of it
with each painful sacrifice exacted by loving.

The wick of holiness
siphoning God into our hearts
like an artisan well draws water to Earth’s surface, is this:
a willingness to disappear
so that someone else may live

Think on that for a moment.
…a willingness to disappear
so that someone else may live

The first-responder that enters a burning building
to save the life of an utter stranger –
what is that?

The human rights advocate
who lives precariously on the margin
of deprivation and violence,
and who may even get murdered while trying to
non-violently defend those even more vulnerable –
what is that?

The health professional
that enters the quarantined zone to care for dying victims
or to help figure out what is killing them –
what is that?

Enlisting to serve in combat, knowingly going to war
to defend one’s country and preserve a way of life,
even for people never known. What is that?
Risking one’s life
in a particular moment
in order that a stranger may live,
is to illuminate the darkness
with an idea about life
that is greater than oneself.

To disappear
that someone else may have life,
is a powerful idea
greater than any single self.

It is an idea as well as an act
that defies the logic of survival
and self-preservation.

To willingly, perhaps even unnecessarily,
risk one’s life on behalf of others
or even on behalf of an idea, is stunning.
More than stunning.
it is confounding and astounding.

And yet, there it is
at the very heart of our spiritual wisdom.
Right there at the bull’s-eye
is an invitation to give it all up.

It is not a demand –
even God could not make such a demand.
It is an invitation.

It is an invitation to live life on behalf of others,
and it is the encouragement
to live life in such as way
as to create a more abundant life for all people.

At the heart of what we say and do
as Christians –
as people baptized into a particular
spiritual practice –
is the invitation to become a wick,
a conduit for holiness
between God and others.

It is an invitation to be willing
to give it all up if need be –
the ‘it’ being everything from life choices to life itself.

To get specific,
the baptismal covenant we have been saying
throughout Easter season,
is an insistent contradiction
of what most of us were raised to think and believe.
We were taught to be individuals and individualistic;
encouraged to be consumers in fact,
with insatiable appetites.
We were taught to care more about our own people,
and our own neighbors,
and our own nation,
and our economy
more than any other people or nations or economies
anywhere else, as if we are an island
that could survive without an ocean.

We have been taught to look out for #1
and that those with the most toys at the end win.
We have been nurtured to believe that success
and achievement is measured in dollars,
and power, and fame.

But in baptism,
yours and mine,
we are invited to reject those ideas as rotten
even at the cost of our own lives if necessary.

We are invited to
use our lives –
to use them up if need be –
in defeat of those rotten ideas.

We are invited to
use our lives –
to use them up if need be –
to supplant those rotten ideas
with new ideas that are not self-centered at the core.

We are invited to use up our own life,
if need be,
to illuminate the darkness
created by rotten ideas
as a moth burning brightly against the night.

Anyone who has even briefly strolled through Christianity
as it is articulated in the gospels,
knows this invitation.
If Jesus is about anything
it is about this invitation to use our lives
to illuminate the darkness.

And yet we take it for granted.
Jesus burning at the center,
wicking the love of God up his own mutilated body,
is so right there at the center of it all
we can easily forget,
and ignore, and deny it.
But when we juxtapose the baptismal invitation
to use our lives to illuminate the darkness,
up against our economic and cultural
measurements and standards for goodness,
it is startling –
crazy even.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
once challenged us, ironically as it turned out,
that the question is not
what are we willing to die for,
but what are we willing to live for
Our baptism,
yours and mine,
challenges us with the same question:
“What are we willing to live for?”
What, in fact, are we living for?

In economics,
we would measure what we are living for
by what it costs us,
and its value would be determined
by the cost-benefit ratio.
That is not the baptismal standard,
and in fact,
that kind of economic standard
actually diminishes our lives.

What are we living for?
Once we know,
we can go out and spend our lives on it.
And it doesn’t matter how much life we have lived already, whether we are twenty or ninety,
the challenge is still the same.

In our baptism
we have been called to reject
rotten ideas about what our life is for
and instead, to use our life
on behalf of ideas bigger than us,
and for people beyond us.

It is a one-day at a time kind of thing,
and sometimes,
a one-moment-at-a-time kind of act.
Our spiritual practice,
described in our baptismal covenant,
invites us to become a wick of God’s love
that we may illuminate the darkness with our very own lives.