In the Long Wake
Preached June 1, 2014
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
The text for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14:
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.” 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.
We sat there in my Aunt Carol’s kitchen, surrounded by casserole dishes, the unused oxygen tank, prescription medicine bottles, and each other. It felt like some sort of weird dream. Here we were writing thank you notes to people who had given money to the church in Aunt Carol’s name. It seemed bizarre to be marking the day after her funeral sitting awkwardly in her kitchen writing notes to people, but at least it gave us something to do.
Like so many deaths, it seemed like it happened in slow motion but was so fast I couldn’t really remember what parts took place where. There was the questionable x-ray and then more scans and so quickly things moved from a normal life to surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and hospital beds in the living room because she couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore. Many of you have been there.
I was with her the last time she left her house. What strikes me is how mundane it was. She lay there in the middle of the night her hospital bed in the living room and the breathing was so labored. Do we go to the hospital? Don’t we? It was like we just didn’t know at the point what was good and what was bad. Was she trying to recover or was she now just hoping to die peacefully? She didn’t know and we didn’t know.
Within twenty minutes we decided to go to the hospital and that was that. Out the door, leaving pill bottles on the kitchen table, a midnight snack on the cabinet, and we left her home of 30 years and she would not come back.
And so here we sat, after her death, in the kitchen, struck by the banality of her absence. The cars still drove on the roads outside. We had to return to our jobs. The casseroles would stop coming. The notes would be sent out. And life would go on. It felt so momentous to be without her and yet the world went on, and we were left to make sense of things in the wake of this loss.
As we think about our scripture this week, I think of the roller coaster the disciples were on for the weeks surrounding Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Often, we hear the stories in the Bible and nod with familiarity because we have heard them so many times and know how they turned out.
But imagine Jesus friends and his mother sitting together after the crucifixion. That quiet, odd, calm that comes after a death where you no longer know just what to do with yourself. Arrangements have been made, there has a burial, and now you must figure out how to go on. I imagine how they sat there on that Saturday, felt sick to their stomachs, worried, unsure of what to do as they faced what seemed like both an eerie absence and a chaos that Jesus’s death left. What were they to do in the face of the world that was broken before Jesus’s death and surely seemed even worse now?
We must remember that although the resurrection was joyful, it came after a losing a friend to a violent death just a few days earlier. Imagine what it might be like to lose, not only a friend, but your leader and teacher whom you believed would lead to a different world. Imagine how you would feel if you lost your teacher friend, who was like your family, and three days later that person showed up, wounds gaping?
They had seen miracles, but as they saw the wounds, and struggled to make sense of it, like many of us still struggle to make sense of it – they struggled to integrate it into their lives and to what was happening. They did not yet know that Jesus was the Jesus we know or that the tradition he and they would leave would be Christianity. It would be many years later that the term Christian would even be first be used.* At this moment in the bible they were poor, exhausted followers of a charismatic, poor, Palestinian Jewish teacher in Galilee and Judea.
Thus, even with the resurrection and the ascension, we must remember that the disciples were real people who did not know what was happening, did not know the outcome.
Jesus’s life and death and resurrection and ascension does not shock our ears because we have heard it so much, but these words invite us to consider this in its own context and where this would have been traumatic, scary, and confusing. And overwhelming.
Shelly Rambo is a theologian at Boston University and she has written a book that I have found very helpful in thinking about what Christianity can look like today in the midst of a world not only full of suffering and injustice, where it can often feel overwhelming, but particularly a world where Christians and Christianity are too often part of causing harm. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining she makes the argument that the power of the resurrection is not Jesus’s resurrection as the triumph of life over death, but the power of the persistence of life in the midst of death. His wounds were still open.
Through hundreds of interviews with trauma survivors, she realized that they were learning how to live with experiences that were difficult to integrate into their existence. Survivors of Katrina, survivors of war, rape, of childhood abuse and neglect. For many of her interviewees, there was never a time when there was victory over the pain, when it was gone, or away, but rather the best that they could hope for was a life in the midst of the reality of this experience that remained with them.
And Rambo argues if Jesus’s resurrection and ascension was the end of the story, there is no more for us. And this is why, in our verses today we hear, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,” two angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And they are called to turn their attention back to the aftermath. To the world that remains.
We hear that they returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, and they prayed.
They gathered together to turn their attention back to the world. To turn their attention back to the world that was still shot through with trauma, and death, with oppression, and people who long for a better life in the midst of brokenness. I don’t know about you, but I know of longing for a better life in the midst of pain.
Shelly Rambo writes about a theology of remaining – where we do not go to the triumph, to the victory, because in that triumph and victory we leave behind the people who are still living in the midst of pain and wounds and death. And that, my dear friends, is all of us.
Many of us have probably heard and been told that we should be saved. And for too many of us this was about saying a prayer or perhaps going to an altar call and someone telling us that was it. It was about making a decision that had something to do with whether we would go to heaven or hell, whether we would be good or bad, in or out.
And, while we can affirm together this morning the need to open ourselves up to rebirth and to make meaningful commitments to our faith journeys, our verses this morning draw us back down to this world where salvation is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing process – salvation is slow, my brothers and sisters, it is slow and it is long.
What if we are saved not by just saying a prayer, but by doing as Jesus did – which was to honor tradition while at the same time disrupting that tradition, by loving those people that were said to be unlovable and that includes loving ourselves, by speaking out truth, even when the costs were very high, by forgiving and offering grace even when it is so very hard. That is where salvation is, day in and day out, remaining. Remaining when it is hard and sad and the answers are not clear.
The well-known Christian theologian and African American thinker Cornell West speaks to this when he says that justice is what love looks like in public. He says, “We need the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people,” we are called, he says, “To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” This is life in the midst of death.
We heard this morning that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs. They began, in many ways, their ministry of remaining with the world. Catherine Keller is a theologian at Drew University and says that this theology of remaining that this is a “theology that holds up in the face of personal and collective suffering, for it frees us from the dishonest resolutions, the grim guarantees, the disappointing promises.”
We have all been on both sides of those resolutions and promises – that things will be different, that we will really, now start to do the right things, the things we should, be the person that we want, to be the partner that we want to be to our spouse, the parent we want to our children, the person that we know we can be. Turn on the televangelist and they will tell you that you will be saved and it will be different. That there will be victory over what ails you – drinking, drugs, envy, pain, disordered eating, sexuality that causes you or others harm.
But I want to suggest this morning that we have not been well served by teachings that frame the Christian journey as one of triumph, or absolutes. Shelly Rambo notes that insofar as Jesus’s story is proclaimed as life conquering or life victorious over death, the church cannot speak to the realities of traumatic suffering, where there is never the end of the story, or the victory over the struggle, but there is instead slow hard work to eek out a path where life can be decent or even good in the midst of struggle –there must be a return and a return again and again to each time take a step forward, to heal a little bit, to struggle with the demons, and to inch ahead.
This is a theology of staying with it, on the ground, in the trenches. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” said Jesus as he ascended. You will be my witnesses and the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” and they returned to Jerusalem, and went to the room upstairs where they were staying.
The Christian tradition is a faith born out of violence – of death – of trauma of loss, and confusion. And perhaps it is like this because, at is best, Christianity can be a faith that makes promises that are real. That no matter what you do, you are still welcome. No matter what happens to you, you are fundamentally good. That you can be saved. That you can be loved. That you can love. And that you can love.
But this grace, this salvation, this love – it is not magic. You will be witnesses, he said. It is slow, and it is hard and we are called back again and again to love each other, to remain with each other.
I have spent much of my ten years in graduate school studying the ways that people try to grapple and make sense of their faith and their lives with specific regard to sexuality and relationships. There is a significant movement in the U.S., one that I have studied for many years and I’m finishing my book on it now. Many of you probably know it as True Love Waits, the idea that one of the key things we must do for our children and that good people must do is, “Wait until you are marriage to be sexually active.” Just say no, they say. It is 100% effective.
As I was preparing for this sermon, reading about how theology and the church and Christians can respond to the needs of the world, here and now, rather than looking up to heaven or thinking about things for a later time, I kept coming back to my many years of work and study about relationships and sexuality.
A book a few years ago came out called Sex and the Soul and in this book college student after college student said either 1) they were religious and they considered their relationships and sexuality to be wrong and thus separated it from their religious identity or 2) they were no longer religious because they could not make sense of their relationships and sexuality in light of the teachings of their church. Their faith wasn’t able to answer the experiences and realities that they had on the ground.
And this fractures people. It fractures people from their own bodies, from their faith, from their families, because it is an easy answer to the lived experience that is messy, and complicated, and disordered.
There are not one step answers to making sense of our relationships or our bodies, and this is why Jesus was among the people. Our tradition honors the beauty and messiness of people because God was the people. John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But in Greek, here the Word is logos which can be understood as both wisdom and knowledge. It is a creative use of language that draws on both Greek and Hebrew traditions. John is saying here that in the beginning was knowledge and wisdom, and knowledge and wisdom was with God and knowledge and wisdom was God.” And in a later verse we see, John’s gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And we are now left. Like the disciples left in the wake of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we are now left, sitting, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of people who will tell us that there are clear easy answers – just say no – just get saved – just do this or just do that – and we are left in the long wake to do the slow work. The slow work of looking away from heaven and the magic and miracles and being a witness to a life that was lived with the people, in the messy, broken, disaster of a world.
We are sitting around our table, in the wake, and the world is waiting for us to be present and remain. To remain when the answers are not easy, when the work is hard, when we ourselves feel broken, and hurt, and scared and not sure of what to do.
And perhaps it is here that we can all find salvation together, bearing witness to The Word – logos – the wisdom and knowledge – that became flesh. To give an account – to testify – to what life can look like in the midst of death.
May it be so. Amen.
*For more on this, see Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), especially pp. 1-26, 240-241, 250-259.
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