Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sermon: "Out of this World"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 17, 2015 – Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26;  John 17:6-19

“Out of this World”

On August 12, 1962, four young musicians gathered in a recording studio in the west end of London, England.
They had just finished their first official recording session as a band when their manager pulled one of them aside. 
The 21-year-old drummer had been with the band for two years but on that day he was told that his skills as a musician were not up to par and did not translate well in the studio atmosphere.
He was also told that his conservative way of dressing and his neatly trimmed hair did not fit the bands image, and his quiet, moody demeanor, stood in stark contrast to the chatty and jovial nature of his band mates. 
The young man was told that his services would no longer be needed, and a replacement drummer had already been found.

The young man’s name was Pete Best, and he will be forever be known as the original drummer for the Beatles – the one who missed out on all the fame and the accolades because he didn’t fit the image that the band and the record company wished to present to the world.

Pete Best went on to live a quiet yet fulfilling life as a civil servant, but he will forever have an asterisk next to his name as the member of the Beatles that most people have never heard of.

We might say the same about the disciple named Matthias.

Peter and John, Simon and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, Thaddeus and James, and James son of Alphaeus.    
These are the names that are familiar to most.
These eleven men were Jesus’ remaining disciples after Judas Iscariot, the one who had betrayed them all, reportedly took his own life out of guilt and shame.

But these 11 men were not the sole keepers of the faith after Jesus’ death.
The book of Acts tells us they were joined by certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers, and 120 additional believers.
Matthias was one of those believers.
Together they gathered as a community in Jerusalem after spending a whirlwind 50 days in what must have seemed like a waking dream.

On Easter morning, they were lifted up out of a pit of despair by the news that Jesus, their beloved friend, teacher, brother, and son, was alive.
One by one and in gathered groups, they all witnessed this miraculous thing called the “resurrection” as Jesus himself appeared before them – in a locked room, on the shores of the sea of Galilee, on the road to Emmaus.

In the 7 weeks following Easter Sunday their heads were surely spinning.
The experience of Jesus’ gruesome death was still fresh in their minds, and they feared that they would suffer the same fate, but Jesus appeared before them repeatedly and told them to not be afraid, to not give up, to continue the mission he had set before them.

Yet just as they began to feel rejuvenated and reenergized as a community and truly believe that their beloved leader had returned … an instant he was gone yet again.
Jesus ascended to heaven….and they were on their own once more.

When we think of the accession we might imagine the scene from classic works of art that depict a glowing Jesus with his hands outstretched rising slowly into the air while a chorus of angels surrounds him and a beam of light shoots down from above.

Or we might imagine him disappearing in a flash…flickering out of existence…with the witnesses swearing up and down that he really did just disappear, and he didn’t just slip out the back while they weren’t looking.

Then again, we might not imagine the ascension at all. 
We might wonder if the frenzied smattering of Jesus sightings in the 50 days after his death were brought on by the intense grief of his followers, and as they began to heal and accept his death, the sightings lessened and then stopped all together.

Regardless of what we believe about the resurrection or the ascension,
many of us can imagine what it must have been like for those left behind.
We’ve all felt punched in the stomach by grief at some point in our lives.
Then gradually our energy returns and we get on with the business of living our lives, and living into the life that our loved one would want us to live.

Once Jesus stopped appearing to his followers and it became apparent that the only way for the movement to survive was for the remaining believers to reorganize and reenergize themselves, they set about doing just that.

The first thing the disciples did was bring their number back up to twelve.
Twelve is a sacred number in the Jewish faith.
Jacob had twelve sons who went on to form the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jesus named twelve disciples to symbolically continue the lineage of his people and to honor the divinely ordained charge to spread the message of God’s love in the world.

For posterity, the Book of Acts dutifully records the name of the new disciple and how he came to be chosen.
The gathered believers named two men among them who had been with them since Jesus’ baptism, and then they essentially flipped a coin.
Wishing to eliminate any personal favoritism, politics, or biases, they placed two stones in a satchel, one for each man, and drew out one, believing that God would ultimately determine which stone was chosen.
Matthias was the lucky winner.
And other than this brief passage in the book of Acts, his name is never mentioned again in the entire New Testament.

Matthias is the disciple that few have ever heard of, perhaps because unlike the others he didn’t stand apart from the world around him.
Peter and James became leaders in the early church.
Bartholomew, Philip, and Thomas traveled extensively and established Christian communities of their own. 
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had their own followers as well, and out of their communities came the gospels that we still read today.

Historians note that there was a gospel attributed to Matthias, but unlike the other gospels it was not widely read or shared and it has since been lost to time.

The most telling comparison of all is that while most of the original twelve disciples were martyred – meaning they were either crucified or stoned for publically expressing their Christian beliefs – one ancient historian noted that Matthias died in Jerusalem of old age.

It’s safe to say that Mathias did not leave his mark on the world as the twelfth disciple of Jesus, either as a gospel writer, a community founder, or a martyr…. but perhaps his lack of notoriety offers us an example of what Jesus was talking about when he said we as his followers must live in this world but we should not live as if we are of this world.

It’s easy for us to lose ourselves in this world –
to get caught up in the struggles of daily living –
to blend in rather than stand out –
to not concern ourselves with how we might change things for the better for others because we’re too busy trying to keep our own heads above water – or we’re afraid we might lose what we have.

But Jesus calls us to live differently.
We are to imagine the world that we wish to live in –
and then live as if we are already in it.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John understood this.
Each of the four gospel writers centered their Jesus stories firmly within a distinct community – and then dared those communities to imagine what it would be like to live differently.

Mark’s gospel was written for the first generation of believers.
Those trying to make sense of this story of a Messiah who told his followers that he must die so that they might live.

Matthew wrote for the next generation of Jewish believers; those who watched the Romans destroy their Temple and who longed for a new Moses to set them free.

Luke wrote for Gentiles and Jews, who longed to hear stories of Good Samaritans and a compassionate teacher who urged them to help the poor, feed the hungry, and turn the other cheek.

John wrote for the Greeks – a people enamored with philosophy and thought, who had no interest in parables and narratives and instead encountered Jesus as the light, the logos – the Word – who in the beginning was with God, and was God.

Each of these Gospel writers centered Jesus within the world they knew – but they also took their readers out of this world – describing an existence – a Kingdom or Reign of God – in which they all longed to live.
A world where fear, scarcity, and struggles over power and resources no longer exist.
A world where violence is eradicated and the pain of death is no more.
A world where all are served from the abundance of God’s table and no one is turned away or denied the gift of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.

When Jesus prayed to God on behalf of his disciples he did so knowing that they longed to see and live in this utopian world of God’s making… but until it came to be they must continue to live in this world – this world of our making – with all its faults and brokenness and heart wrenching occurrences of destruction and evil that cause some of us to question whether there is a God out there after all.

When we switch on the news and see bodies being pulled out of the rubble in Nepal…
When we see children dying of starvation in Syria and Sudan…
When we see terrorists choosing to kill in the name of God,
and juries choosing to kill in the name of justice…
we may wonder if this utopian reign of God that we Christians keep talking about is just some pie in the sky pipe dream that will never be a reality.

This where we need to be reminded that we live in this world but we are not of this world.
We were created to be so much more than we are.

This is also where we need to reminded why we need the church.  
The church is where we practice making the pipe dream a reality.
The church is where we practice living in community.
Where we learn what it means to share, and serve, and forgive.
Where the values of the world we live in are turned upside down,
and greed, and distrust, and fear no longer are our guiding forces,
and instead we seek to be guided by compassion, empathy, and love.

The church is where we practice what it will be like to live in the Kingdom of God – and the key word here is practice.
Because more often than not we’re not even close to getting it right.
But that shouldn’t keep us from trying. 

We may not have the courage and the fortitude of the first disciples.
But that doesn’t mean we’re destined to end up like Matthias,
with an asterisk next our name that tells others we didn’t do much to make ourselves stand apart from the world.

We need only make it our goal to do one thing every day to stand apart from this world.
Knowing that very act of compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and love we release into this world moves us closer to the world we dream of living in.

We are disciples of Christ.
We’re here because God chose us, and because we chose God.
May we live into this honor, as often and as fully as we are able.

Thanks be to, God.

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