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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures:
Ascension Day:  Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Psalm 93:1-5, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53
Seventh Sunday of Easter:  Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97: 1-12, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

The coming Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, is the first Sunday after Ascension Day (May 9th).  Some churches will celebrate it as Ascension Sunday, so I’ve listed and will comment on the lectionary readings for both days.

Some of them made me think of the phrase, “Pie in the Sky.”  I discovered that the phrase was coined in 1911 by Joe Hill, a leading light in The Industrial Workers of the World.  It appeared in one of many radical songs he wrote for the movement, “The Preacher and the Slave,” a parody of the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.”  He intended it as a critique of those who concentrated on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry.  Here are some of the words:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

In recent weeks we’ve been in the middle of the life of the early followers of Jesus as they struggle with his departure from them in bodily form.  I’m not going to try to explain the image of Jesus floating off into the heavens on a cloud.  (Acts 1:9---see also Luke 24:51)  Luke’s narrative (which includes the book of Acts) is the only place the story is told.  The ascension suggested Jesus was now sitting on a throne in heaven from which he ruled over all things.  Ephesians 1:20-23 talks about “the immeasurable greatness of his power . . . God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and had made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  It’s no accident that the Psalm readings for both Ascension Day and the seventh Sunday of Easter focus upon the kingly aspect of the divine.  “For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth.” (Psalm 47:2)  “”The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty . . .”  (Psalm 93:1---See also Psalm 97:1)

I thought about using, as this week’s title, “What next?” or perhaps, “Where do we go from here?”  That’s what these early followers were struggling with.  It’s something we often wonder about as we fear losing sight of an anchor which has given meaning to our lives.  Too often we gaze into the sky thinking if we can follow the vapor trail we can call the plane back and go along for the ride.  Jesus, however, asks, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  (Acts 1:11)  He’s already given them a task.  They are to be “my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (vs. 8---See also Luke 24:48)

There’s stuff in there about his coming again, another doctrine which has tied us in knots at times.  “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:11)  Twice in the reading from Revelation the Lord says, “I am coming soon.”  (Revelation 22:12 & 20)  Traditional interpretations don’t much move or motivate me.  I note that there is an invitation to the hearer to come.  “Let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”  (vs. 17)  I note that even for the returning Jesus the earth is where the action seems to be.  I’m content for the moment to believe that he is ready to come and empower me whenever I am ready to serve him.

The reading from The Gospel According to John is given to us as the prayer of Jesus as he agonized in the garden prior to his death.  He prays for his disciples, and for all “of those who will believe in me through their word.”  (John 17:20)  It is a prayer for those yet to come who want to follow the Way he has shown them.  It’s all about being bound together in his Spirit, he says---repeatedly!  “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one.”  (vss. 22-23---See also vs. 21)  Here’s the kicker, though.   It’s not all about pie in the sky, some mystical unity.  The purpose is “that the world may know that you . . . have loved them even as you have loved me . . . so that the loved with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (vss. 23 & 26)  Don’t just stand looking into the heavens.  Get on with the work of love right here on this earth.  That’s what’s next!

When one is empowered by that love, what happens?  The reading from Acts 16 shows us that the consequences can be pretty radical.  Paul and Silas (and probably Timothy and others) meet a slave girl who makes “her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”  (Acts 16:1)  She experiences a conversion, discovers her freedom, and becomes no longer useful to her owner.  “When the owners saw their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” (vs. 19)  The power of Jesus’ Spirit is still at work liberating slaves and disrupting established patterns of doing things.  Paul and Silas are accused of “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt and observe.”  (vs. 21)  They are put into prison and then something even more radical happens.  It starts with them singing in jail rather than wringing their hands or asking for a public defender.  (vs. 25)  An earthquake hits “and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”  (vs. 26)  Most prisoners would have run but the surprised jailer finds that they are still there.  (vss. 27-29)

The consequences of the presence of a powerful love in one’s life can be pretty radical, even strange.  Who would have thought we might share some of the radical vision of the song writer, Joe Hill?  His hopes were for something more than pie in the sky.  May the power of love incarnate assure that our hopes are also not pie in the sky.  Why do we too often stand looking up toward heaven?

There’s one more reading that I mention almost as a footnote---or is it a footnote?  The reading from Ephesians is presented to us as a prayer by Paul for the saints in Ephesus (or for believers in all times and ages).  He has heard of their love.  (Ephesians 1:15)  His prayer is full of the empowerment that love provides, seeking wisdom and enlightened hearts for them.  I leave you with words of prayer to sustain all of those who would be part of Jesus’ continuing work on this earth: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”  (Ephesians 1:17-19)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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