In this season of graduations, some folks at National Public Radio took time last week to give us a summary of what makes a good speech. Many of these components are easy: 1. be funny. 2. be self-deprecating. Movie stars mention their worst movie, authors the times the book didn’t sell. 3. Downplay the genre. People giving these speeches say something about having no idea who it was who spoke at their own graduations. The fourth point was a more substantive, about message, about some consistent theme or thread, and it being authentic and real. The best messages are two sides of the same coin, they said. One is: You are special. We’ve all heard it – this is the inspiration, aspiration, good job, get out there, you can do it, you are amazing, believe in yourself, trust your passion, you can change the world, yippie! The other is the exact opposite: "You’re not special." "Even if you’re one in a million," one speaker said, "on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you." As hard as you’ve worked, you also lucked into plenty, including your parents and your country. "And with luck comes obligation," author Michael Lewis told the Princeton class of 2012. You owe something. To repay this debt, he said, "You must find a way to serve."1
For as long as they could remember, Jesus had been speaking about the kingdom of God.2 From when he first stood in the synagogue in Nazareth three years before, the disciples knew that Jesus was ushering in something, as lepers were healed, as demons were cast out, as thousands were fed on the hillside. Through his parables and stories, Jesus had been telling them something about this new way – good news to the poor, release to the captives. Even as he hung on the cross a criminal to his side pleaded, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom."3
But after the resurrection things weren’t clear. Stay here in Jerusalem, Jesus said, the Holy Spirit will join you. They couldn’t help it: Lord, is THIS the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? In places of uncertainty the questions come: How will things go? Will the bills get paid? Will our relationship survive? These questions quickly become prayers: Lord, is this the time, is this the season, when things will come together – I’ve worked so hard? Lord, is this the time you will save her from the addiction, heal him from these wounds? Lord, is this the time you will put an end to the violence in our streets, like the shootings in Santa Barbara week before last, when your kingdom will come in and end all this exhaustion, this pain?
Jesus reroutes them towards the heart of the matter. He knows that part of their question is about the kingdom of Israel, when the Romans will be overthrown, the oppressors destroyed and then THEY will finally be in charge. But His kingdom is not about power, but love.4 Echoing what he has said in Matthew (24:36), Jesus says that no one will know the day or the hour, the timeline, the plan. But YOU, Jesus says as He levels his gaze. YOU will receive power. This power is not for you to have and to hold and to receive comfort, though there will be seasons when you need that, but that power is to send you out, that you might be His witnesses – one who sees and who tells, the Greek is martus, martyr – in Judea, in Samaria. Despite the deep historical conflict between Jews and Samaritans – you will be sent even to Samaria, to the ends of the earth.
Then, poof, he’s gone. The disciples stare up, mouths gaping, until they hear a voice: How long are you going to stare up there? He’ll be back, and you won’t be able to miss it. Until then, bring your head down, look around, and get about His work. It’s not that the disciples didn’t need to look towards where Jesus has gone. The church must never forget that it is called to point to a reality beyond this one. But the angels are also wary of the opposite problem, of looking up too long and missing what is right in front of you.
It seems like these things are questions of alignment. In these weeks after Easter, we have watched the Risen Christ send his disciples out into the world to stir up trouble. Resurrection faith is not a gift to make us feel more comfortable, more pious. It is dangerous when faith is contained within our churches where we sit with people like us and repeat words we all know. It is dangerous when we think that we are the ones with the secret knowledge, the inside track. It is dangerous when we think the purpose of this Christian faith is only to give us this vague, pleasant feeling so we can keep going on living the same way we have all along.
But the other side of that is also a problem. We only react. We jump from one job we hate to another one we just hate different things about. We leap from one relationship to another that is different. We react to someone in front of us, based on however we are feeling that day. If they catch us on a good day we might be gracious and patient. But if we’re in a hurry, God forbid to a meeting or something really important, too bad for them. I don’t think the angels are telling us to stop looking to heaven at all, but to pay more attention to the world in front of us in light of the kingdom Jesus is ushering in, even now.
Yesterday morning a handful of us went over to Hope Valley Elementary. Micah Copeland, the principal there – he was here in Advent and is also going to do the Sharing Our Mission next week – showed us the Latino Family Academy that YOU all made happen through your gifts to the Christmas Eve offering. Because of your gifts, for the last 5 Saturdays a number of families from Forestview and Hope Valley came from 9am- noon. The purpose is to equip parents to better support their children’s learning. I have a hard time getting things together and focusing on my kid’s homework sometimes and English is my first language. Everyone meets in the media center, and they worked some exercises together, wrote some short poems, memorized lines by authors, mainly from Central America. Then they split up, and the kids get some extra enrichment, and the parents – there were 10 or so of them there yesterday, including 5 dads, learned more themselves, as well as were taught strategies to better help their kids. It was as powerful as I have seen in a while – something YOU made happen through your gifts.
But at the beginning, after everyone introduced themselves, they told us to close our eyes. One of the staff clicked something on their computer and ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ that so many of you have heard at graduation after graduation, in recent weeks and the weeks to come, started playing. They were told to dream about what they could do, what they could achieve. It was silent. After a few moments, when we opened our eyes, one women reached for her purse. She pulled out a tissue and wiped a tear. In Spanish, she said to the group that last year at this time her oldest son had graduated from high school. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, she said. This was the mission of the church, the kingdom of God, powerfully at work, and in beautiful alignment. They were all being taught some things right then, but also taught strategies that would, at their best, bring gifts to them for years, build a stronger family, support our school and our neighborhood and our community in extraordinary ways.
Once they come down the mountain, Luke tells us who is there. He lists disciples we know, men and women, a couple of family units. The first congregation.5 And Luke wants their names to inform ours, from the list on this insert of all these amazing graduates… to the folks on the pews around you… to the saints that have come and gone over the years. The church. Not staring up at some unforeseen reality, not too in the weeds here, but knowing we have work to do in this place, but that it is not our home. Aligned by the Spirit, in love.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Anatomy Of A Great Commencement Speech, NPR, May 20, 2014.
2. This insight comes from David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., "Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2" (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), Theological Perspective by Sean White, p. 520.
3. Luke 23:42
4. FOTW, Pastoral by Rick Mixon, p. 520. Mixon quotes William Barclay, "…by the Kingdom Jesus meant a society upon earth where God’s will would be as perfectly done as it is in heaven. Because of that very fact it would be a Kingdom founded on love and not on power."
5. FOTW, Exegetical Perspective by Michael Joseph Brown, p. 525.