For Just One Moment
text: “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)
Ascension Sunday – 17.May.2009
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell
Let us pray,
May God take our minds and think through them
May God take our lips and speak through them
May God take our hands and work through them
And May God take our hearts and set them on fire.
urrently, roughly 1500 miles to the north and east of here, timid New England gardeners, with the passing of the last average frost date, are setting out tomato, cucumber, and pepper plants. They will plant, water, and allow nature take its course like gardeners everywhere. The sun will nearly scorch the tender leaves, the shock from temperate greenhouses to the wild outdoors of backyard plots will almost stunt their growth, and the wind will come close to snapping the brittle stems.
During our time of proclamation this morning I ask that we retain the image of a swaying seedling in our minds. On the surface a swaying seedling appears to be hanging onto life by the thinnest margins. A view from below, however, reveals a radically different reality. When the wind sways a seedling to and fro the stem communicates to the roots directing them to spread and protrude deeper into the ground.
I offer the image of the swaying plant as one particular metaphorical window to view this day in the Christian year, the day of the Ascension, the text in Acts, when Peter and John say for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard, and what I perceive God is up to by bringing us together this morning, on this day of extension of a call.
epending on how acute you observe the Christian year today may or may not be the day you celebrate the Ascension of Christ. Seeing and hearing no objections let us celebrate Ascension Sunday this morning. I dare say that no one here will be hosting an Ascension Day party (however, this being New Orleans I better watch my assumptions). I dare say for the vast majority of Christians Ascension Day will come and go without fanfare or hoopla. Yet I want to place on the table, without Ascension Sunday our faith as Christians would scarcely exist at all, if it did exist it would be of an immature vintage.
-On the day of the Ascension God in Jesus Christ said to the disciples: See you later.
-On the day of the Ascension, God in Jesus Christ said to the early church: You are on your own.
-On the day of the Ascension, God in Jesus Christ says to us: Grow up.
This is a day of tough love. God desires for us to be co-creators with him, no co-dependents. On this day God performs significant service by extending to us the space and time to mature properly. On this day God reminds how God is willing to take a chance on us. On this day God reminds that God’s faith in us is much greater than our faith in God.
Of course God is always present. Of course Jesus is Emmanuel – God with and for us. Of course, the Holy Spirit is with us as the Comforter and active generative presence in creation. But Jesus as the disciples knew him is no longer on earth – the very indwelling and incarnation – Jesus of Nazareth and Christ of Faith.
The absence, the ascension of Jesus, empowered the faith of the church to grow, to deepen, to mature.
-No longer could the disciples inquire about the meaning of a parable.
-No longer could the disciples hear Jesus describe the look on the father’s face when Jesus healed his daughter.
-No longer could the disciples say they were sorry over and over and over again for abandoning Jesus.
Without the physical presence of Jesus the disciples had to learn to live without him. I am sure all of us gathered have had to adjust our lives in some form or fashion due to the death or absence of a loved one. It has been nearly three years since my father died and I still have to stop from picking up the phone to call him when I have a question or a story I want to share with him. And so the disciples had to alter their lives without the presence of Jesus.
Indeed, the swaying wind quickened their faith maturation. The swaying disciples, just like us in midst of life’s readjustments, had to live their new lives with great trust in their decisions and an openness for risk; they had to – for just one moment lean on the Spirit and rely on their time and experiences with Jesus. The book of Acts records the chances and moments as the swaying disciples matured.
ur lesson for this morning recounts one of those times, when two former fishermen, Peter and John, spoke authentic words when they were in the custody of the religious and ruling authorities. With their backs against the walls, probably literally and definitely figuratively, Peter and John defied the command to stop teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus with their words, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Just a few weeks ago these same disciples feared for their lives and were behind locked doors. After the resurrection of Jesus the disciples were not on the streets preaching God’s great action. They cowered behind locked doors thinking Roman soldiers were coming for them next. They were behind locked doors with nothing to say. But after their time with the resurrected Christ, after they started putting his life, teachings, actions, death and resurrection together, after they were left on their own they realized they had something to say, we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.
We know very little about the personalities, particularities, or eccentricities of the disciples. Our gathered biographical information on Peter and John could possibly encompass a paragraph or two. We do not have specificities of their whereabouts, thoughts, or inner dialogues but we do know that primarily from Good Friday till the Ascension, they, had been through fire and rain, death and new life, abandonment and reconciliation. They witnessed first hand that God’s faith in them was/is/will be stronger than their faith in God. For just one moment they leaned on the Spirit and spoke from their experiences – they had something to say. we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.
Peter and John furnish us a model of authentic words, fresh words, clean, concise, and crisp words. When they are offered, lives are changed. We live in a time and age when religious language evaporates as quickly as it is uttered. Words crucial to the good news: forgiveness, grace, and love just do not seem to have the bite they once did. When, however, you discover a way to embody in deed and word forgiveness, grace and love you will witness the melting of a hardened heart, crossed arms loosen and drop, and cold steal eyes well with tears. When you speak from a center of faith that is genuine folk listen. Not every word we speak or hear should cause our ears to burn, but when the time is ripe we hope to either speak or hear living words and not empty phrases. When the time was ripe, for just one moment, Peter and John spoke from a new center of their lives, for we cannot keep from speaking what we have seen and heard.
few months ago while reading The Christian Century from right to left, well really from back to front, starting with the job advertisements before moving to the articles, I noticed the advertisement for this church. I knew of the church from stories Bill Rogers told while I was at BTSR and I knew of this church from legacy of Avery Lee. I shared with Lori I’m going to apply for the Senior Pastor position of a church in New Orleans. She just kind of looked at me – didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes either. (Allow me to drift for a brief parenthetical moment – after I interviewed with the search committee and agreed to preach in view of a call Lori said hold on a minute. I want to go down there myself and see if this is a place I want to call home. A few days passed, she looked me dead in the eyes and said “I do not need to go down there, I am putting all my trust in you on this one.” Brothers and Sisters I have invested nearly 12 years in marriage to Lori plus an additional 2 in dating. I have given her everything I have of my emotional, intellectual and spiritual capabilities. I do not mention this to influence your vote but know that more than a call is on the line here, a marriage is also).
Part of my preparation for the interview involved reading every article and book I could on New Orleans. Every book I read mentioned that this is a city like none other in America. On the one hand you have to be off your rocker to live here: hurricanes, crime, and weather that was described as wrapping a hot steamy towel on your head for six months of the year. While on the other hand if you allow this city to percolate through your blood you will never want to live anywhere else in America. The city definitely has something to say.
When I honed my focus on the church I was amazed to find that both aspects of a swaying seedling came to the fore. Different ones offered the usual assessments of mainline congregations: graying/silvering membership, lack of true direction and mission, small youth group and Sunday School, blah, blah, blah. (That’s the plant swaying in the wind.) Different ones, also, offered another assessment: this church a sleeping giant. (This is the deep root system of a swaying plant.) Here is a congregation brimming with talent, skills, and creativity. Here is a church with a rich legacy that few others can match. Here is a beautiful church on one of the most unique and majestic streets in America.
After I caught my breath. After I peeled away and deconstructed all of the glories of this church…I found a real church, a gathered people, who have been through fire and rain, through death and new life, through abandonment and reconciliation. I found a people who had something to say.
he day, is the day of the Ascension, when Jesus departed from the disciples so they could mature, so they could for just one moment lean on the Spirit and offer authentic and fresh words. I venture to say this congregation has/is experiencing its own ascension moment: a deep experience and sense of loss and loneliness that I can barely, if ever, imagine. I would expect to find a church behind locked doors, silent. But I discovered a church with open doors, with something to say.
The main question I asked the search committee and I ask you as a church is what do you want me to help you to do? As your pastor what do you want me to help you to do? I sense God is asking us for just one moment to dive deep into the stories that have/are/and will shape you as a people of faith. I’m here because I want to help you articulate your story, to become a part of your story. I cannot promise overflowing crowds but do not hear me saying I do not care about numbers, because I do. I can promise you however, that if you promise to work with me and know that I promise to work with you on digging into your story, this place will not be just “a church on the avenue” – it will function more like a Baptist cathedral, a spiritual dynamo. For y’all have something to say. Your stories have some real sinews and muscle to them. If for just one moment let us savor a foretaste of the sweet glory divine in the midst of everyday life. If for just one moment we lean on the Spirit then we can all say together, we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard. Amen and Amen.
Loving God, who first loved us. May we open our hearts for just one moment, to have your Love Supreme re-birth us as your servants, as your disciples, as your friendsto help heal our world, mend our wounds, and to reconcile each to you and one another. In the precious name of Jesus, your Son, our Savior we pray. Amen.
I think the sermon went well. Now to the importance of a church bulletin. While preaching - my wallet was stolen (no, I was not mugged in the pulpit). After the service I changed and hopped into the rental vehicle and started driving back down the avenue when I noticed my wallet was missing. I looked and looked but could not find it. As a precautionary measure the VOR called our credit card companies, indeed illegitimate charges were made. Although it was unpleasant to have my wallet stolen, there was nothing that could not be replaced. But what about a photo id? How was I going to get on the plane? This is where church bulletin comes in. Believe it or not, my form of valid id to get through TSA screening was a church bulletin with my name on it.