Focusing Our Lives – Part 5 of 6: Look Sharp!
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, June 4th, 2017
I know there are some people, I know there are some churches that tell you it’s all about what YOU believe and we come to church to get our beliefs right. That is a bunch of nonsense. Those folks need to read scripture because today’s Scripture is just for you; if that’s what you believe; if that’s what you think, that the church is all about right belief. What do you believe about this? This is the text that the people in it don’t know what to believe. What will we do with that? My argument would be that we come to church because we are looking for meaning in life. There is a whole lot of life is meaningless and we have a longing for meaning in life. It’s not all that hard to find. This text is about finding that meaning. If you listen to some of the peripheral words in the text and what’s going on — kind of around the edge — you notice some things.
What happening here is we have this ragtag band of followers; some of them were the people who were with Jesus right before he died. Some of them have been added into the mix. There are women and there are men. They are starting to work out what their time with Jesus meant; what they are supposed to do now. They starting to comprehend that he’s died and been risen. They probably went through all five stages of grief simultaneously. You know those moments where you know the person is not coming back but you hope the door open and they will walk-in and you’re just disgustedly sad about it and you’re lost and you’re depressed and all of that. They’re going through that. Our text tells us of a transformation that happens when we go looking for meaning in life and it begins as most transitional events do a little bit before we start reading. Jesus had been telling his followers for a while that he would leave them. He keeps coaching them. He keeps guiding them.
We tune in for a little episode and it’s a little bit like a sitcom television show. Each episode is a routine of trying to get them into shape for sending them out into the world as disciples. Go out and make a difference. They say how so that’s an episode. They misunderstand something and he has to coach them a little bit and there is a little bit of the heartstrings music as they come to realize, oh we’ll need to look at this differently. There is audience laughter and a little bit of discomfort as we recognize ourselves in the disciples and their stupidity. Over time we see character growth and development. We follow the characters through the storyline and we oftentimes find ourselves wondering: okay, what happened to Peter this time because Peter is the one that approaches every problem with an open mouth. Today is the final episode of this season and I see the disciples; they are all gathered at Al’s diner. They are sitting in booths and listening to the jukebox and are having light conversation and some of them might get up and dance a little bit. Jesus struts in and the audience applauds; the jukebox goes quiet; he just looks. Before he can even get a word in edge wise they plaster him with questions. Lord is it time? Is it time for the kingdom to come? Lord is it now? Is it now? Tell us. That’s when the Ralph-to-mouth moment hits them.
Jesus is cool and in his sometimes wonderful calming voice he says: it’s not for you to know, BUT… It is a beautiful word – BUT — it keeps us hanging, telling us but there’s more coming. But you will receive power, he says. He turns on his heels and he starts heading back out the door to Al’s diner. We are perplexed, we get up out of the booths and we follow him out the door. Great, looking at each other, punching each other in the arm, power, POWER, this is going to be great. Just one thing, what does that mean? Our brains are racing; our mouths are trying to follow. Is it power like walk on water power? Will we get to heal people? Will we get to make wine at parties? Or is it the power that we dream of: where we command attention, where we can buy more stuff; probably not that kind of power. We get out to the parking lot with him. And Jesus continues, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, even among the Samaritans. Okay, great, receive power, got that. Not now, OK, we have to wait, fine. Samaritans! What was that? We don’t want to hear what we don’t want to hear and we don’t like the Samaritans. Once Jesus has said this, as we are watching, he’s lifted out of their sight and they stand there and their faces just follow him up and they are thinking about forming words to shout out and they just watch him go up because they realize that talking is not for now.
Wait, there’s got to be more. And while all this is happening, he just keeps going up and they realize they are just babbling. Picture this for a moment; this is a great camera shot. All those people looking up with their mouths open and what do you do? I just love this scene; God is a great comedy writer. And it gets better because all of a sudden, standing with them appear two men in white. The two men are looking at the people who are looking at heaven and these two men say: excuse us, why are you standing here looking at heaven? Have you felt really stupid? You thought the meaning of life was up there. And you are just looking, staring off into space and what are you doing? That’s the same question God asked Elijah in the cave all alone, what are you doing? The same question that your wife asked when she comes up behind you and sees what’s on the computer screen that you’d like to click out of, what are you doing? The same feeling Jonah had on the beach after he’d been belched out of the whale covered in fish barf, what are you doing? That feeling that Judas must’ve had when he realized greed had gotten a hold of him, what are you doing?
It is that feeling, it is that awareness that we come into that we have been distracted by the unimportant, the dumb. What happens next in the text is the big shift. This is where we really need to pay attention because the disciples, the followers of Jesus, the first church, get a whole new way of looking at things. Later they will look back on this and they will recognize it and classify it. They will talk about it at all in the same way that they talked about Jesus healing of the blind man. When Jesus touched the man’s eyes, his sight was returned, but he couldn’t see very well. He said people look like trees. Jesus touched his eyes a second time and the man begin to see clearly. The early church interpreted this experience with the Angels as we were getting our eyes open to see what is in front of us.
This change of focus, this change in the way of looking at things; they were able to see things as they had never seen them before. They were able to find God’s presence in ways that they had not. The book of Acts is a little weird in how it writes this. It calls these the keys to power. I think power is a good word here because we feel powerful when we are finding meaning in our life; we are looking for meaning in our life. The text tells us if you want to find meaning in your life there are four things that happen. They all happen in this text. The first key is the shift from gazing off into the heavens to the earth around you. I know when crisis comes sometimes we go urrrr and sometimes we just sit in the car with the radio off and the air conditioner blowing and we just look out into space. These angels show up and point out that they simply had come to remind the disciples that they been instructed to return to Jerusalem. They were saying: go that way. You’re looking for the next step in life; you don’t know what to do; go that way. That was the message they brought. That was the purpose of these two angels. It will not be in heaven where you see your next step. It will be in Jerusalem where you’ve already been told to go. They left that hillside; they traveled to Jerusalem and it was there in Jerusalem among people that spoke different languages from all different nations, the spirit came in to that moment.
The church in every age has had a hard time with these instructions. There has been a real surge in spirituality lately. I think people are hungry for something besides malls and money and cars and speed and competition and the rat race. So we turn to books, we turn to websites, we listen to gurus, self appointed experts with a briefcase; something that might touch the inner yearnings of our souls. Acts warns us that if the spirituality is not rooted in the real world around you, then it’s not the work of the spirit. If our spiritual life is not connected somehow to other people then it is just brain fluff. Anytime anybody says: I’m just a spiritual person, the question we should be asking them is: okay, how does that carry out into compassion for someone else. How does that make you a different person than you would normally be. Because most of the time it is just an opportunity for people to say: I’m lazy about my relationship to God and I don’t want to be pulled out of the shadows.
Here’s how I think about that. Everybody likes to get away; we do. Sometimes we have to sit in the car with the radio off and stare out the windshield. Sometimes we have to get in front of our televisions. I think actually television was a great gift to us because sometimes we do need to escape reality. TV shows that captures us all and gathers us together can actually be a good thing. TV shows like Hill Street Blue, everybody watched Hill Street Blues. MASH, everyone watched MASH; still the number one closing episode ever, the most people that watched TV together at one time was the closing episode of MASH. NYPD Blue, Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, we could lose ourselves in these TV shows. Season after season we watched. Maybe for you it was binge watching a season of your favorite show on Netflix now. What is it for you? We disconnect from our reality. That’s what professional sports are for a good number of us; it’s a way to disconnect from our reality.
In episode TV there comes a season ender or the end of the episode. We expect to find meaning. Then the episode is over and as it fades from TV, there we are, staring at our TV, our viewing device. Wait, that’s it? Theres got to be more! I was expecting meaning and purpose and answers to all of life’s questions. I want a miracle to change my life to come out of this television show. You mean that’s it? It wouldn’t surprise us one bit if two people in white appear on the couch beside us and said: why are you staring at that screen?
For reasons that we all understand, we have difficult relationships and want to get away from them. We need something else in front of us. We really do want to be distracted. We really think we want a perfect life. There is an episode about that also, The Twilight Zone. The episode was titled: A Nice Place to Visit. A guy had died and he went to the afterlife and he soon found out that everything was perfect: every sunrise was beautiful, every sunset was astounding, the weather was always gorgeous, every poker hand was a royal flush and when he played pool every ball that he hit went into a pocket. After a while he said to his host: this isn’t fun at all. I don’t like it here in heaven. And his host said: what makes you think you’re in heaven? [laughter] Be careful what you ask for, you might get it
Leonard Cohen, the folksinger who died last November seemed to understand some of this meaning search that we have. He said: there are cracks in life, cracks in everything; that’s how the light gets in. The angel says that the great miracle is: you don’t need to gaze into heaven to find God. Look closer; look where the cracks are in your life and the lives around you. That is where the light will shine through. You probably are not going to escape the challenges of our lives. That’s where you look for God and that’s where you look for meaning.
The second key that our text offers is when we search for God out there into finding God in one another. There is a wonderful stage place called Inherit the Wind and one of the characters in that play said: he got lost he was looking for God too high and too far away. Our text tells us that we find God when we redirect our gaze to the people around us. Anne Lamott: drug addict, street prostitute, and author in her book, Traveling Mercies, talks about why she makes her son Sam go to church. She said early on I was trying to get sober; early on I was trying to stay upright; I was alone and I was scared. She said one Sunday at the end of church I stood up and told my congregation that I was pregnant. She said they almost knocked me down cheering; I didn’t expect it. They reached out to her with arms and they adopted her and they got clothes and they brought blankets for the new baby. They lugged in casseroles that she could put in the freezer at the homeless shelter where she was staying. Church members kept telling her that her new baby was going to be part of the church family and they began to slip her money. A bent-over woman on Social Security would sidle up to her and put a ten dollar bill in her pocket every week. Ancient Mary Williams would bring baggies filled with dimes week after week and put them in her hands. Anne brought her newborn son Sam to church with her when he was five days old. Church folk stood in line to hold that baby and called him our baby and my baby. They cared. They reached out. They prayed for her. They loved her through some very difficult times.
She writes: everything is better now so why do I still go to church? Why do I make Sam go to church when none of his friends go? She writes: I make him go because somebody in church brought me dimes. When Ann looked around her, she saw the face of God in the people of her church; they made sure of it.
The third key in what the angel says moves from THEM to US. The Angels told the disciples to redirect their gaze, look around you, look beyond you. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you and you will be witnesses to people in Judea, Samaria, and the outermost parts of the world. Every age seems to find ways to categorize people into US and THEM. Currently in our nation there is too much profit to be made dividing people into groups and political parties and clans and political actions and divisive causes. Surveys come in the mail from our particular party; surveys designed and worded to divide and disgust and enrage and raise money. The great shift in the Book of Acts is when the Church is forced to wait for the Holy Spirit as a church of all nations, all people. It is then when the Holy Spirit comes to them. Folks known only as THEM became US.
My favorite story about becoming US is told by Garrison Keillor, radio storyteller, about his friend named Dan. Dan was the cowboy when Gary wanted to be the Indian. Dan was the good guy when Gary wanted to be the bad guy. Then they grew up a little bit and they went to school together and Dan got onto a different bus every morning and that bus was called special education. Garrison said he would see Dan with the special education kids and every time he saw them Dan would say: Hi Gary. Over the years Gary said I went through stages where I liked seeing Dan and then I went thru some stages where I didn’t want Dan to see me. Gary grew up and finished high school and college and got a career and a family and he happened to be back in the city and he was waiting on a bus with a crowd of people. Suddenly Dan was there and Dan was hugging him and shaking his hand and greeting him and introducing him to his friends: Lyle and Kyle and Brad and Mary. Then they got on the bus and Dan invited Gary to sit with him and Gary did. Garrison said on that bus a boy could have reached over and pulled a girl’s pigtail and the girl would have smacked him and said stop. He said: suddenly on the bus it was just US.
One of the messages of the Ascension and Pentecost story is there’s no such word as THEM; it is only US. And whoever says otherwise is working their own agenda. That understanding makes it possible for all sorts of walls and divisions to crumble and fall. Dividing people into US and THEM is not the work of the Spirit through you. The image of the text — if we carry it out a little bit — the image of the text is if there’s a wall between you and someone else, build a bridge and get over it.
The fourth key that the text offers us is it moves from vague to specific. The Angels remind the disciples: you have been sent by Jesus with a purpose: make disciples, form people; your first stop is Jerusalem. Go! That was just the start. The Angels got them listening from where they were next being sent. It was out on the roads and it was to the sick and to the hungry and to the jails, to their attackers, to the leaders of their nations, to their enemies, to the outcast. There are a lot of scenes waiting to be unfolded for us. Throughout the rest of the Book of Acts, members of the church are being sent out. The questions every time they go out they encounter Gentiles, oh God, Gentiles! Can these folks be baptized? Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. How weird is that? Can he be baptized? Peter and Cornelius encounter a Centurion. Can he be baptized? Paul, the killer of Christians who scares us more than anyone else; can he be welcomed and baptized?
Every time the answer is YES. There is nothing the Holy Spirit can’t do; get out of the way. And often times the answer that comes back is: we took you didn’t we? [laughter] And look what God has done to you, with you, for you, through you; it changed your life. All these keys are about opening doors and changing lives, about finding meaning in our life. Sure, get away, escape, lose yourself in entertainment for a while; but don’t expect life meaning to come there. Look in the broken places; don’t run from them. Look in the places where there are cracks in your life; where God is working. Be God’s presence to someone who has no right to expect it. Start bringing dimes. Get out of the business of dividing people into THEM and US. The challenge is not to be right. The challenge is to build a bridge. Number four, God has sought you, God has found you and God is sending you. The challenge is not what you believe. The challenge is: where is God sending you next? And will you go? Will you trust God to go with you? Your task is to figure out where God is sending you and then go. You will be amazed and you don’t know what to believe. What the Angel said in our text today is true; change your focus; it will change you.