Sunday, May 20

Sermon: Ascension Sunday

Sermon: Feast of the Ascension
May 20, 2007
Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler

Rev. Tripp Hudgins, preacher

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
(Luke 24:45-47)

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

I loved Jerry Falwell.

Yes, I admit it. I loved him. I imagine that may come as a surprise to many. He was a divisive, difficult, hyper-political, sometimes racist, vitriolic crazyman from Lynchburg, VA. And yet, I loved him.

For those of you who are unaware, Rev. Jerry Falwell died on May 15 at the age of 73. He has been a fixture on the national religious and political stages for as long as I can remember.

Now, I will also admit that my love of Jerry was not always gentle affection. No. Most of the time Falwell served that J.R. Ewing (Do you remember Dallas?) function in the Baptist peanut gallery that resides in my head. This is true. But he has been present no less, part of the "great cloud of witnesses" leading me toward salvation.

Growing up in Virginia, it was almost impossible to talk about or think about faith without Jerry's voice ringing in your head. And, eventually, it was almost impossible to talk about politic without the same thing happening. Jerry was simply present in the midst of all of it, haranguing us, his audience with word after word. It was almost impossible not to respond somehow.

So, I formed my faith life in the shadow of Jerry Falwell. I chose the reaction formation route. What Jerry did. I would do the opposite. At first it seemed like a really good idea.

But in the process there is this temptation, a strange temptation…

Leave the scriptures behind.
Leave the tradition or the culture of the church behind.
Remain mute on matters of faith.
Reject Christianity all together.

Maybe I am alone in this. Maybe I am the only one who does this when I encounter a personality as unwavering a Falwell's was. But just in case…

Do we accidentally undermine the church in the process of trying not to be like Jerry? Do we actually accomplish the opposite of our goal or presenting an alternative when we try to rescue our faith by succumbing to any one of the above temptations? Do we actually maroon our faith somewhere, or abandon it in some way?

I think so.

Instead of following this path, we need to speak out. As tiresome and implausible as it may seem to many of us, we have to speak out. I know that some of us might be tired of debating Jerry. I do. But it is essential that Christians of all stripes speak truth to the world, and not just the Jerry's. It has been so since the earliest days of the Church. It will continue to be so.

We cannot abandon the story. We cannot stop reading the scriptures and proclaiming our interpretations just because Jerry was never convinced that we were even remotely on to something.

We must seek alternative voices. We must go where people are speaking.

So, who are the alternative voices? Who else is speaking? Who can help us reclaim the church if, as I do, we believe we need to?

Was William Sloan Coffin, the esteemed preacher from Riverside in the 1960's and 1970's, your alternative voice? Is Jim Wallis, from Sojourners and God's Politics fame? Perhaps that Emergent Church guru, Brian McLaren, has something to contribute in his "generous orthodoxy."

Perhaps I am that voice.
Perhaps you are that voice.

Perhaps it is you and I who are called to embrace the scriptures once again, to sit at the feet of Jesus and have our hearts and minds opened to the scriptures.

What would it sound like to embrace scripture? Is it something that people could listen to, something people could hear?

Have our minds been opened to hear the scriptures?

Are we willing to sit with Christ, and listen to what he says about the scriptures? Listen to the words again.

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Now, remember, the scriptures here are the Hebrew Bible, the books of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms. Jesus was not reading from second Corinthians.

Our interpretive task today, however, is from Luke.

Do you see the parallel that Luke presents to us in this passage? Do you see how suffering goes with repentance? Do you see how resurrection is paralleled with forgiveness? Jesus' life is the ultimate model of compassion. This is what Luke wants us to know.

Repentance leads to forgiveness. Repentance teaches us compassion. Through repentance, we learn that all of us are struggling in this world. We all make mistakes, hurt people, hurt ourselves. And we must be prepared to name this kind of suffering. Then forgiveness is available to us…God's forgiveness and the forgiveness of those whom we have harmed. This is suffering and resurrection at the relational level.

The message that we are to proclaim to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem is this…Jesus is the model of all compassion. God is compassionate. Yes, there is suffering. No, faith is not easy. I do things wrong. I have to repent. But there is forgiveness. And that forgiveness is so great that it even overcomes death in the end.

We are to offer such compassion to all of the world. That is evangelism. That is mission.

In the process, we will encounter diversity. We will encounter hostility. We will encounter opposition. But there are ways to understand this as well.

Listen to these words from Becca Hartman, a senior at Northwestern University and an American Baptist. Her words are about interfaith dialogue, but they apply to our task today.

In interfaith dialogue, we do not suggest that all religions are the same; they are not. We do not ask individuals to give up or dilute their beliefs for the sake of peaceful conversation. In fact, it is in respectful listening and even vulnerable sharing with people of diverse religious traditions that we learn how to articulate and celebrate our own beautiful traditions and beliefs.

You see, what Becca says is true not just in interfaith dialogue, but in intra-faith dialogue as well. What I fear we often do as liberals or progressives, is give up the truth behind these words from Luke's Gospel. We dilute our faith hoping to not offend someone else. We dilute our faith hoping not to be mistaken for someone else.

We are to engage scripture. We are to deepen our roots in scripture and the tradition of the church, not abandon it because one individual voice seems to hold sway.

We are to proclaim and demonstrate the truth behind these words from Luke. Compassionate action and proclamation go hand in hand. We are to seek repentance and the forgiveness of those we harm. We are to interpret this passage on the public stage proclaiming it to all the nations, as well as in our personal lives. This passage is the seed of compassion. This interpretation of scripture is the seed of compassion. The story of the suffering and resurrection of the messiah is the story of compassion.

What is compassion without the self-knowledge that leads to repentance?

It is empty.

A dialogue like the one Becca describes is only possible when we have delved into our own traditions and learned to own them, warts and all, foibles, sins and their richness. We must become apologists for the faith. Jerry Falwell, in leading a conversation on the national stage compelled me to learn how to do this. Perhaps mine was to some degree a reaction formation, but he has shaped a debate for generations of Christians in America. The debate is not over. Jerry did not win it. It continues.

We are called to speak compassion. If people believe that our faith tradition is not about compassion and transformation of the individual and the community, most likely it is because no one is telling them. We are called to speak compassion.

Perhaps this is the interpretation that the world needs to hear…that we need to speak.

I share all this with you because of my own search for God and the incredible impact that Jerry Falwell had on that journey. I need a language. I need a community. And when I began my search, I was handed the rhetoric of the Moral Majority. I found its words and its actions confusing.

But, at the time at least, there were no other voices that I was aware of. No one else seemed to be speaking. So I chose to live without faith. It was much easier than any other course of action that I could devise. Perhaps I was lazy. This is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Eventually, intuitively, I turned to the church. I took classes in college. I lived with Christians. I sang hymns. I participated in the charitable life of the church. I marched on the state capital. I slowly found a voice. I learned compassion. I learned to love Jerry Falwell.

Jerry was right. Faith, though personal, is never private.

Jerry was right. Salvation can be found in the church…in the community of the faithful, the shared life of those who are the Body of Christ.

Jerry was right. We are to be passionate in the proclamation of the Gospel.

We dare not duplicate his mistakes in our attempts, however. We cannot marry the church to any one political party, to any one platform. And we must be constantly vigilant to follow the way of compassion, the way of repentance that leads to forgiveness. The more public our profession of faith becomes, the more difficult repentance becomes. Our egos get involved. We don't want the humiliation. And yet, if we are to speak and model such compassion as described by Luke's Gospel, then we have little choice.

This is our day to observe the Ascension of Christ, that strange moment in the history of the church where Jesus flies away in to the heavens. This is yet another moment in the story that shifts the definition of how God is present in the world.

At Christmas, God is born…a small child.

During Epiphany and Lent, we find God present in the life and work of Jesus.

Our understanding of incarnation is changed in the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed at Easter.

And again, our understanding is changed today. We are the Body of Christ. The Church is the incarnation of God. We are to go out into the world and be the incarnation of compassion.

It is an active faith.
It is a working faith.
It is a giving faith.
It is a speaking faith.

If we do not speak, proclaim what Jesus asked us to proclaim in Luke's Gospel, then the body is mute. Christ was a speaker. We remember his actions and his words. Many ask, "What would Jesus do?" I want to know, brothers and sisters, "What would Jesus say?"

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!