8:15 am Sunday morning and this is still not feeling done to me, but Spirit is going to have to take it from here...
Ephesians 1:15-23 and Luke 24:44-53
For the next couple of weeks, I will not be worshipping here with you. J and E and I will be flying to Minnesota on Friday to visit family for a week. And then I will be, for the next week, at the Festival of Homiletics. When I told the guys in the office this week how thrilled I was that I would be spending a week listening to people preach, and talk about preaching ALL DAY EVERY DAY, they didn’t think that sounded as exciting I did, for some reason.
But I am excited about it. And as I’m getting ready, I’m remembering another conference 10 years ago at which I heard a lot of preaching. One of the sermons was very memorable, maybe as much for the faithful confidence evidenced in the preacher, as for the message itself. The preacher spoke of a healing passage of scripture, one in which a man with a withered hand is healed by Jesus, in the synogogue, on the sabbath. And what I remember, all these years later, that this preacher spoke so lovingly and carefully of scripture. It was almost like each word was a beautiful diamond and as he preached, he held each word up to the late afternoon sun that slanted through the windows, so we could see how the light shone through it in all directions. I remember being convicted of the preacher’s deep faith in God, and his confidence that the church could be the place where that faith could be renewed, his confidence that the church could be the place where the people of God were healed, his confidence in the church as a center for justice and inclusion of everyone.
That preacher was named Jeremiah Wright, and I remember being so moved by the words he spoke and the way he spoke them that I turned to the young woman sitting next to me, a gentle Lutheran seminary student, and whispered “Wasnt that WONDERFUL?” and I heard her say “I wish he could have said all that without, you know, shouting so much….”
It was in that moment, on that day when I first heard Rev. Jeremiah Wright preach, that I realized how words, and the WAY that are delivered could be received completely differently by two different people. For me each word was a shining jewel, for another, the meaning totally lost because of discomfort with and unfamiliarity with a style of delivery – a enthusiastic style traditional in the American black church, that included invitations to the congregation to talk back, or stand up and shout, a style that to my friend sounded too much like shouting.
In case you are not following the news about him – the preacher I was so moved by a decade ago is the same Rev Jeremiah Wright who is a pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the same who has been much in the news for the last couple of weeks, since a few small snippets of his sermons hit the airwaves and were played in seemingly endless loop, until other stories crowded him out.
If you are following it, you have watched as the same thing that happened to me at the conference years ago happened in our whole nation. You have watched as some have turned to their neighbor with a “wasn’t that wonderful?” and you have watched as their neighbor responded with “I wish he could have said all that without, you know, shouting so much.”
Have you been hearing FROM Wright or just about him? Have you seen him interviewed in an interview on PBS with Bill Moyers, have you watched a speech he gave to the NAACP? Did you see his lecture and interview by the press club? And have you paid attention to the press that came out afterward – the press that by and large has been negative?
What exactly is Jeremiah Wright accused of? Of racism, of fearmongering, of violence… And yet, his words, the words I actually heard him speak at that memorable sermon 10 years ago, and then again this week in 3 separate events were just the opposite – they were about reconciliation among people of all races, they were about hope, they urged peace, they called God’s people to work for justice.
How did it happen, that some of us heard one thing from Jeremiah Wright and others of us, hearing the same words told in the same way, heard the opposite? There are many pieces to the puzzle – Wright’s connection to the election and our nation’s fascination with any minute thing that might hint at scandal in any of the candidates, our own barely concealed suspicion that there are racial divides in this country that have never been healed, and that aren’t getting our much-needed attention because we are too ashamed or too in denial to deal with them, our grief and confusion about a war that was started by events beyond our understanding and that continues in our name for reasons we understand even less, a nation’s surprise at hearing a progressive Christian voice in the media which is so used to sound bites from televangelists – little pieces of faith made bland and palatable - that it doesn’t know how to handle a big meal, with all it’s nuance of taste and texture.
Or maybe it’s just that we are looking for someone, anyone to blame for our persistant dis-ease. A headline on CNN.com this week cries that 70% of Americans say things are going badly. Really? Does that mean that 7 out of 10 of us believe that things are going badly? Or that all of us believe that things are going badly 7 days out of ten?
If it’s true, in a time when people believe that things are going badly – with the economy, with war - we do tend to look around for someone to blame, and we lash out at that one. “Here’s a preacher spreading hateful talk, let’s blame HIM…”
Ten years ago I heard this remarkable sermon preached on a short text about a man with a withered hand who went to the synogogue, where he encountered Jesus and was healed. In Matthew 12 and Mark 3 and Luke 6, that story is followed by this short, chilling line “and after that, they plotted how they could destroy Jesus.” That healing, which broke the rules of convention by taking place on the Sabbath was the first step on the road to Jesus’ destruction. Why? Because he dared to point out a broken place, because he dared to welcome an outcast, man with a withered hand who in his time would have been considered only part a man into a temple (a place of power) and because he dared to speak words of healing and inclusion for all people.
Today’s story takes place after that – after Jesus has welcomed, healed, been plotted against, been killed by those who fear him, and risen. The story is called Ascension of Jesus and it might seem a little, I don’t know, embarrassing. It’s a story that’s illustrated in some churches by pictures of a pair of feet dangling from the ceiling, while the disciples look up in wonder as Jesus is whisked away.
We don’t focus on The Ascension all that much in our Protestant tradition. We prefer stories of Jesus’ actions, and maybe we’re a little uncomfortable with these stories that seem to us to stretch credulity, to make us want to believe something that is so difficult to believe. After Jesus’, after his resurrection (more miracle!) and after, the book of Acts tell us, Jesus has been with the disciples for 40 days, teaching and encouraging them. He takes them out of town a ways, and opens scripture to them – leads another little Bible study there on the road as he did on the road to Emmaus we talked about earlier – and then while blessing them he rises up and out of sight.
It is a story about a miracle. But maybe more importantly, it is a story about how Christ leaves his group of followers. his last direction is to “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Stay. Stay together – don’t wander apart and let yourselves be divided just because I am no longer here. Stay. Stay in the city -- do not retreat to the relative safety of Galilee, which was home ot many of the disciples, the place they would have been hidden and safe. Stay. Stay in the city, although it may be more dangerous and know that when you speak, more will hear you, and more will have the opportunity to misunderstand you and even attack you. Stay until you have been clothed with power from on high. Stay until everyone will know and everyone can see how the Spirit is working in you and with you and for you. What you are wearing, after all, may keep you warm, may protect you, but it is obvious, it is not a secret.
And then he blessed them. And then he was gone, leaving them, leaving all of us, to work out the details of how to be this new little community, how to be this separatist movement, how to be this band of dissidents, how to heal and teach and love – how to be Christians without his direct, earthly guidance.
How do we know what to do? How do we, in the words of Paul, know the hope to which we are called, know the spiritual riches of our inheritance, know our own collective power, how do we know how to be Christ’s body in this world?
We look for clues, everywhere. And if you paid attention, if you listened to the whole thing instead of the sound bites, here’s what you might have learned from Jeremiah Wright this week:
We are a body, but there are greater racial divides in this country, and in our churches, than we like to acknowledge and than many of us know. 10:00 am on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of week. That divide causes pain for all of us, even if we are not even conscious of it most of the time. As the body of Christ, we have been offered both an opportunity and a responsibility to educate ourselves so that we can imagine and work for a better future.
We are a body, each part distinct and unique, but each working together to form the beautiful whole. Each part is different from the other, each from the other, that our difference is not difficiency, it’s just difference. And God loves all of God’s children, each of whom are made in God’s image.
We, the body of Christ have a legacy to live that is given to us by our Biblical heritage, a story told entirely by people who lived under oppression and occupation of one kind or another. We, who read that story from the position of power in which we find ourselves, have an imperative to speak and act against the forces of imperialism. An imperialism, that for example, creates wars based on lies, created a war that currently has resulted in the deaths of more than 4000 American men and women, as well tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani men, women and children.
We are the body of Christ and here’s what the body is for – in Wright’s words: liberation, transformation, reconciliation, or put another way freedom, change, love. We are the body of Christ and we are to love everyone. Love everyone. Love everyone.
Jeremiah Wright is a prophet, one who dares to name our unhealthy fascinations, our suspicions, our grief, our confusion, our shortcomings and our shallowness. But like other prophets who speak words of correction and challenge, he always speaks those words, if you really listen, pay attention to the whole, along with words of hope and blessing.
It is so easy for our words to be misrepresented and misunderstood, as I believe Rev. Wright’s have been, but the thing of it is, that we need to keep speaking anyway. While he was blessing them, Jesus went from them. While he was infusing them with the holy, the divine, his biggest hopes and wishes, Jesus went from them. He promised them that they would continue to feel his power and then he went from them. He went from them, but he did not leave them. The miracle of our faith is not the feet dangling from the ceiling, the miracle of our faith is that he continues to live on – in our actions, in our words, and in the words and actions of others. He did not promise us that is would be easy, he did not promise us that we would never be misunderstood, he did not promise us that we would never be attacked by enemies. What he promised us was that we would know the holy. And by knowing the holy, we will know how to be his body, here in the world.