by Rev. Sarah Buteux

June 2, 2019

Acts 1:1-11, Ascension, Year C

Alright my friends, I want to begin this morning by having you think back to a time in your life when you felt like you were left out on your own – not just left to your own devices- but really out there all on your own… a time when you had no choice but to pick yourself up and stand on your own two feet. 

Maybe it was stepping on to the bus your first day of kindergarten or into the lunch room on the first day of middle school. Maybe it was after the death of a parent or the finality of a divorce. Maybe it was your first day as the boss or your last day at the company, the time you pulled up stakes or the day you rolled into town. 

Think back to a time when you felt like you were all on your own, and then allow yourself to remember how that felt.

Maybe you felt fearful and insecure. Maybe you felt anger at having been abandoned or resentment at having to figure it out all by yourself. Maybe you felt anticipation about what was to come, excitement at the idea of a new challenge. Hopeful, terrified, up to the task, or woefully ill-equipped. 

I remember feeling a weird combination of all of those things the day my parents dropped me off up the hill at Smith College. Most of you probably don’t know this about me, but I was slow to leave the nest. I never liked being away from home. I was the kid who called her parents at midnight with a vague stomach ache so I didn’t have to stay for the whole sleepover. 

I was the child who was literally homesick at sleep away camp, spending more time with the counselors than the other kids. And I didn’t go away to college until my junior year. I went to the community college in our town instead, and I loved it. 

If Smith hadn’t recruited me, I don’t know that I ever would have left New York. But they did, and I viscerally remember the day my parents brought me up here. I remember unpacking in my dorm room. I remember exploring downtown and marveling at the size of this very church. 

I remember stumbling into Faces, reading all the t-shirts and bumper stickers on the wall, and realizing – right along with my poor parents – that Northampton wasn’t a small town like other small towns. 

I’m sure we went out to eat, and then they dropped me back at the dorm, said, “goodbye,” and drove off. I remember, strangely enough, that I didn’t cry. I totally kept it together. I stood up straight, waved goodbye, took a deep breath and then headed in for orientation. There I was, trying to take it all in, when about 15 minutes later the doorbell rang. Someone came and told me that my family was at the door. 

They’d bought me a dress at Cathy Cross, a black dress I would need if I made it into the Glee Club. It was a dress I knew they couldn’t afford, just as I knew it was their way of saying they loved me and were with me even though they had to leave me. And that’s when all the feelings I was keeping bottled up so tight – the fear and the trepidation, the anger and abandonment, the excitement and adrenaline, all rose up and threatened to spill over.  

My eyes filled with tears and I said, “Thank you and I love you and you have to go now. You have to go for real or I won’t be able to to do this.” Which was true. If they’d stayed a moment longer, I wouldn’t have found the strength to stay at all.

I remember feeling something similar when they put George in my arms and told me it was time to leave the hospital and take him home. And I remember feeling it again when God whispered that it was time to leave my pastorate in Hadley and start Common Ground. 

It’s that feeling you get when you have no idea what you are doing and yet everyone expects you to do it anyway. That feeling you get when you have no idea where you are going, and yet you’re just supposed to keep moving forward anyway. Like the first time you rode without training wheels, jumped off the high dive, or went for a drive without an adult in the car. It’s a terrifying combination of longing for what has been while also anxiously stepping into what will be. 

And if you’re like me, those are the moments when you just want the world to stop spinning for a moment so you can get off and catch your breath. You want to press the cosmic pause button, and spend some quality time with the universal rule book so you can figure things out. But life doesn’t work that way. Not for us and not for Jesus’ disciples either.  

They may have lived over 2000 years ago, but it’s not that hard to imagine how they felt. Luke begins the book of Acts with this beautiful little summary of the last days of Jesus – the first century equivalent of a “previously on Law and Order” sort of recap  – reminding us that Jesus did many miraculous things while he was among them, not the least of which was die and rise again three days later. 

But now these disciples who have risked everything to follow Jesus, these disciples who have given up everything to learn at his feet, these disciples who have been through the emotional ringer thinking they lost Jesus forever only to get him back three days later, are about to lose him all over again. 

He’s been with them for the last 40 days: forgiving, healing, laughing, and teaching, breaking bread and fishing, walking through walls – I think just to mess with them –  promising them great spiritual power and telling them all about the kingdom of God.  It must have been amazing. But now he’s going to leave them, and they’re not ready. 

They’re not ready for a future without him. They don’t know what to do or what to say. They don’t know how to keep up the good work or move things forward. If Jesus goes up, the bottoms going to fall out. So they ask the sort of question any sane, self-respecting people would ask:  

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” 

And I totally get it. Maybe you don’t, and that’s ok. I’ll explain it to you. I totally get that their first reaction to life without their leader, to life in the unknown, to the prospect of life out on their own, is to ask whether or not this wouldn’t be a good time to go back to doing things the way we used to. 

Remember the good old days, Jesus, before you showed up and changed everything, back when we weren’t so vulnerable and dependent? Remember that time in our history when we had it all together, when we were sovereign and powerful, when we had wealth and autonomy. Before you go, can you take us back to that, Jesus? Would now be a good time? I think now would be a good time. Nathaniel, don’t you think now would be a good time? Philip, you in? Matthew? Yeah, we all agree, that now would be a good time, Jesus.

It’s a moment of profound disconnect, because for the last 40 days, Jesus hasn’t been talking about restoring the Kingdom of Israel or bestowing earthly power upon his disciples. And he certainly hasn’t been talking about going back to doing things the way they used to. 

No, Jesus has been talking about the Kingdom of God, giving them a vision of a new future, and granting them the spiritual power to make it so. And yet somehow they’ve missed the boat… again. And no he’s not going to tell them the future, or even assure them that it will all turn out ok if they just believe and do what he says. 

How it all comes together in the end is not for you to know, says Jesus. What you get, is all you ever really have: the present. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses…even to the ends of the earth.”

And then Jesus achieves lift-off, and they are left behind…out there on a hillside… all on their own.

As I said before, it’s not all that hard for me to imagine how the disciples felt in that moment, because I’ve felt that way before and I’m feeling that way right now. In fact, I think the whole Christian church in North America has been feeling it for quite awhile. 

Because you see, there was a time in our culture when everything funneled people toward Church, not necessarily because they believed in Jesus or even cared all that much about the community, but because that’s just what you did. Church was one of the few socially acceptable places to be on a Sunday morning. But look around you now…

Now we live in a time when going to church is a profoundly countercultural choice. The good news is that if you are coming to church it’s because this really means something to you. It’s because you believe in the importance of Jesus’ message and because you love this community; so much so, that you’ve made a conscious choice to be here rather than any number of other places you could be that are also important.  

The bad news is that we’re out here on our own. The culture has moved on. A society that once lavished time and money and prestige on places like this, has other things to do, places to go, people to see. And so the Church in North America has been steadily declining for years now. 

Our numbers and influence have been on the wane since the 1960’s and I’d love to know when Jesus will restore the fortunes of Mainline Protestantism.  But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. 

The truth is that having been born in 1974, I have only ever known the church in decline. And that is scary. It makes me feel angry and abandoned. Like the disciples, there are times when I don’t know how we’ll find the resources to keep up the good work or move things forward. 

And yet there’s also a part of me that wonders if this isn’t the beginning of something new. If there isn’t a strength we are about to develop that we wouldn’t find any other way, a new found faith we are about to uncover that we would never have known were it not for the challenge before us right now. So in spite of the fear, there’s a wee bit of excitement and anticipation kicking around in me too.

Which is good, because the challenges facing our church right now are real and sobering. The fact of the matter is that with a strong market, your generosity, and careful management on the part of our finance team, we have successfully managed to carry a $40,000 deficit for years now. 

In faith you restored this building and within it we have built up a beautiful ministry with two pastors, excellent music, youth and children’s programing, a farm-to-table dinner ministry, centering prayer, Art & Soul, scholarships for Haitian students, a Circle of Care…and you know I could go on and on and on. And that’s in addition to 52 other community groups who also find hope and healing here throughout the year. 

But our pledging this year is around $37,000 less than last year, and our endowment cannot sustain a $77,000 draw down. We all know that if you take out too much money, the endowment will begin to cascade down. So the finance team and I sat together for 3 hours Tuesday night trimming a very lean budget to the bone. 

Unfortunately, there is only so much we can do without cutting back on our ministerial staff. The trouble is that if you scale back too much on the pastoral side of things, the ministry of the church begins to break down. 

So we have some hard choices ahead of us, personally and as a church. And yes, I’m about to ask you all for more money – so buckle buttercup – but, let me be crystal clear about this: now is not the time to give because you are afraid or give out of a sense of guilt. (Am I right? No, the finance team says we’ll take that too. I’m just kidding). Seriously, that’s not what this is about. 

This is about giving in faith. This is about giving out of love. When Jesus left the disciples, it was so they could find the strength to make the faith their own, claim it, and give their lives to see it flourish just as he had. So if you give more today, let it be because you feel called to step up and do more out of love for the church and because you believe in the work we are called to do and want to be a part of it even more than you already are.

A few weeks ago, pastor Laura challenged us to give until it feels good, and if you’ve already pledged what you can and you feel good about it, thank you. God bless you. You’ve done your part, and we are grateful. 

And please realize that we are still going to need you to give in other ways as well, whether it be mowing the lawn or baking pies for the fair, or just making it priority to come to church as often as you can. In fact, I can’t tell you how much coming to worship matters and I am so grateful you are here right now. 

And if you are not here, but listening to this sermon, come on back. Find a way. We need you here in worship with us more than you know. 

But friends, if you haven’t given yet, or you gave what felt good and right at the time but now realize that you really can give more, I’m asking you to please make a new pledge this morning. I don’t mean to sound like an NPR host, but every little bit really does matter. So much so, that if you need me to find you a mug or tote bag in exchange for your pledge, I will do that. 

In fact I will continue to do everything I can to strengthen our ministry here because I believe that even though we are living in a time when it is harder than ever to do church, that we are living in a world that needs church more than ever; a world that needs good churches – just and generous churches – like this one. 

I have a colleague who says that if we wake up tomorrow and it’s 1950 again, our churches are ready to go. But we’re not waking up in 1950, not tomorrow, not ever again. We are waking up in 2019, in a world full of unprecedented challenges.

Cameron Trimble sums it up this way:

      We are destroying our planet through an endless consumerist culture that, as it turns out, is also killing our souls. 

     We have developed weapons of war to the level that we can destroy our world with the touch of a button. Global wealth distribution is creating a new class of the “haves” and the “have nots” unprecedented in our country’s history. 

     Our community infrastructures – schools, hospitals, citizen groups, faith communities- are struggling to survive decreases in funding while also losing participation because, in part, we are all working 60 hours a week to make ends meet. 

      We are living in unsustainable ways, running on the treadmill of an unsustainable system, consuming our beautiful planet at unsustainable and unjust rates.

We have challenges around mass migration, health care, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia…the list goes on and on. 

And friends, I would despair were it not for the church, because I know in my bones that the church can be a voice of sanity in the midst of all that. Rather than organized religion we can be an organizing religion, a force for good that gives voice and vision to Christ’s gospel: the good news that we don’t have to live this way any longer. 

We can repent. We can change. Like Jesus, we can show the world how to choose generosity over greed, reconciliation over retribution, peace over power, love over fear, and hope over hate. 

 

I don’t know what the future holds, and Jesus isn’t telling. All I know is that we can’t go back. All I know is that you and I are called to do church in this time and place right now, to move out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit as witnesses to the good news that there is a better way to live and love in this world. If this church helps you live into that vision, then I ask you today, please do what you can to help this church live. Amen.