May 28, 2017 Acts 1: 1-11
Prayer: Dear God, May we hear a fresh word from you. Help us to live out our Christian discipleship in ways that are pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
The Usual Suspects
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, a bunch of us from Greenville visited a wonderful housing model in Charlotte in early May. It was a 120-unit apartment complex exclusively for chronically homeless people.
It looked like any other apartment complex, but if you looked closely, you could see some differences. Just one entrance in, and one out, for security reasons. A large open library space where people could congregate. A computer room. Offices for social workers.
As we met with all the agencies and government partners and business people who had made it happen, one woman said, “We knew we couldn’t build this with the usual suspects. If they’d been able to do it, they would’ve already done it.”
We knew immediately what she meant. If Miracle Hill and the Salvation Army and United Ministries and United Housing Connections and Greenville Mental Health and Homes of Hope and Habitat and Triune were able to build all the affordable housing Greenville needed, we would have already done it.
It’s going to take more than the usual suspects.
It was an obvious statement, but it was also sort of an “aha” moment. Business as usual is not going to take this community where it needs to go. The usual suspects need help.
Clearly, that means City Council and County Council and Michelin and BMW and Wells Fargo and Fluor and churches. That means everybody coming together to say, “You know, having people live on the street is hurting everyone. For one thing, it’s not who we want to be. But it’s also costing more in hospital and jail visits than it would cost to provide adequate housing.”
We are trying to assemble the cost of all those hospital and jail visits, trying to assess the economic impact of homelessness. That’s the argument that will sway the not-so-usual suspects.
Oddly enough, I think Triune may be in a unique position among the usual suspects to build consensus -- because we alone have a weekly worship service open to all comers, rich and poor, housed and homeless alike. Not all of you are necessarily familiar with homelessness.
You have chosen to worship alongside people who are not like you.
You have told me you think this is what the kingdom of God looks like.
So a great many of you may have spheres of influence to make the rest of the community see this need. That is certainly my hope.
And so as we look at our Scripture this morning, I’d invite you to think about how you might be involved with this important work. How you might bring a semblance of equality to our town. To think about how basic housing might stabilize someone’s mental health, ability to work, to go to school or to get the medical treatment she needs.
We are nearing the end of Jesus’s story in the church year. We started with Advent in late November, followed by Christmas. Then we celebrated the Epiphany, the time when Jesus was recognized by the wise men from another part of the world.
In February, we began the 40 days of Lent, followed by Holy Week marking the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Holy Week was capped by Easter, Jesus’s resurrection.
Our understanding is that he remained on earth in a post-resurrected state for another 40 days before his ascension. Now those 40 days have passed. Thursday was Ascension Day, the day that Jesus ascended to be with God.
We’re going to read about this story by our friend Luke as he opens the book of Acts. Acts 1: 1-11:
1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me;5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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.’
9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’
This is one of those passages that rolls around every year as we mark Ascension Day in the church calendar. And so every year, you probably hear me say much the same thing. Because I am enamored of this departing message.
You know, we give great credence to someone’s departing words, don’t we? Many a murder victim chokes out a final clue before he dies.
Jesus’s last words are very specific instructions to the disciples: Stay in Jerusalem, because the Holy Spirit is coming to baptize you. We’ll talk about that next week at Pentecost, because that is exactly what happened.
But at this point, the disciples have no idea what he’s talking about. They’re still clamoring to know if they’re going to inherit an earthly kingdom: “Lord, is this the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He brushes their question aside. Never mind about all that, he tells them. That is none of your concern.
And then he tells them what they are to be concerned about:The Holy Spirit is coming, and you will be my witnesses.
The Holy Spirit is coming, and you will be my witnesses.
We don’t have the verbiage yet, but those witnesses will be the church. With the power of the Holy Spirit upon them, the disciples will become Jesus’s church.
And what is that church about? What is that church supposed to do?
We get a glimpse when two angels appear as the disciples are standing there, watching Jesus ascend into heaven.
“They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
Bam! Just like that, the time for gazing toward heaven was over.
It was not for them to know the times and periods and plans of God. It was not for them to contemplate heaven. It was not for them to worry about where Jesus was going.
It was time for them to turn their gaze earthward, to look around them, to set about the business of witnessing, of church building.
I don’t think our marching orders have changed. I don’t believe that we are to spend our time gazing toward heaven either. I think we are to do the work that Jesus wanted done, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And where is Greenville, if not one end of the earth?
In being witnesses to Jesus in Greenville, South Carolina, we are to carry out his commandments: To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome the stranger.
It seems to me the best way to do all of that most efficiently and most humanely is to provide shelter. To provide a home. A lot of things regarding nutrition, health care, mental health, stability fall into place once someone has a home.
But that’s just a method, a tool I’d recommend because of our specific experiences here.
The important thing is to do something as witnesses of Jesus. Because I think this gazing toward heaven is synonymous with an old-fashioned theology that many of us grew up hearing. That is, if you believe that Jesus is our Savior, you are saved. And once saved, you are assured a place in heaven.
That’s a little simplistically phrased, yet that’s basically what I understood growing up. Believe in Jesus and you’re in.
But I think Jesus wants more from us than that. I think he wants an active witness at this end of the earth, an active intrusion into the suffering of his children.
There is a newly retired Lutheran pastor in Walhalla named Frank Honeycutt. He has a book coming out this fall, and I got an early copy. And reading one of his essays stopped me cold.
It concerns a story that comes later in the book of Acts, the story of Paul and Silas being imprisoned for exorcising a demon from a fortune-telling girl. Once she couldn’t tell fortunes any more, her owners’ finances were threatened. So they had Paul and Silas thrown deep into the innermost cell of a prison, with their feet in stocks.
Despite their dire situation, Paul and Silas sang hymns joyfully. Then an earthquake shook their chains loose. The jailer, assuming the two evangelists had escaped, was ready to fall on his sword.
But Paul stopped him. He and Silas hadn’t even left the jail.
The jailer brought them outside and asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved….”
That seems to verify that theology we grew up with, doesn’t it? Believe and you will be saved.
But Rev. Honeycutt reads the passage a little differently. He points out that in response to imprisonment, Paul and Silas … sang. In response to being released from their chains … they sat tight.
So to the jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”, Rev. Honeycutt responds: “Please understand that his question had less to do with the next life, and everything to do with this one. He could’ve put it another way to Paul and Silas: ‘How in the world can I get in my life what you seem to have in yours?’ ”
Being saved … has less to do with the next life and everything to do with this one.
Being saved means a bit more than an insurance policy for the hereafter. Being saved means being Jesus’s witnesses by behaving as he instructed.
So what did he instruct? Oh, my. How to choose?
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9: 35) That’s the gospel of Mark.
“Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12: 33-34) The gospel of Luke.
“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13: 14-15) The gospel of John.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 40) The gospel of Matthew.
Over and over and over in our Scriptures we hear these commands to care for each other, to live in service to each other, to deny ourselves to help someone else.
That can play out in macro ways – to join Greenville’s usual suspects in creating affordable housing. Or that can play out in micro ways – to help one person get back on his feet.
Last week our Triune Circles director Cheri Shumate showed me a picture of this season’s Circles volunteers. They were sitting in rows in the dining hall, smiling for the camera. We have 23 people in this round – lawyers and teachers and architects and photographers and engineers and retirees.
Thirteen of them -- Ryan and Jeff and Wayne, Stan and Robert and Mara, Jo-Carol and Vickie and Paul, Melanie and Joe and Susanne and Mike -- are regular worshipers in this congregation. Most of the others have visited here occasionally.
Each of those 23 people has committed to meeting every Monday evening for a year with a brother or sister who wants to move out of a situation. To move toward a better job or better housing, to learn to trust, to make a better life.
Most amazingly, Cheri has urged the volunteers to share their vulnerabilities with their Circle leader. The leader is the one who’s trying to make changes.
And so these 23 volunteers have shared hurts and doubts and broken places in their own lives as they seek to form little family circles for people who don’t have one.
I think these folks are doing what those angels in Luke’s story intended. They are looking around on earth for the people who need their help.
Men and women of Greenville, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
Our faith is not about saving ourselves for an afterlife.
Our faith is not about wondering what heaven will be like.
Our faith is about living right here as our Savior taught us.