Rev. Danielle K Bartz May 29, 2022
Acts 1:1-11 “Is This the Time?”
The final question the disciples asked Jesus was, “Rabbi, is this the time when you will restore sovereignty to Israel?”
In this pleading question asked of Jesus in his final moments with them, we hear our own questions as disciples in today’s world.
“Is this the time when wars will finally cease?”
“Is this the time when justice will reign?”
“Is this the time when equality will become law?”
“Is this the time when freedom will be known by all humanity?”
“Is this the time when we will no longer have to be afraid to send our children to school, or to go to the grocery store, or to gather with strangers?”
“Is this the time when, finally, we will know peace?”
The disciples in these final moments asked Jesus if their land and people would finally be out from under the oppression of the Roman Empire, something they thought Jesus had come to achieve for them. What they hadn’t realized, still, what humanity hasn’t seemed to realize still today, is that the achievement of freedom and safety and justice and peace is not the work of others, it is our work. As followers of Christ, we cannot look to others to do good in this world, we must be the good in this world ourselves. And to be the good inside moments of tremendous wrong is not easy or safe, but to refuse to do so is an abdication of our call and the lesson Jesus left us with in these final moments of his ministry recorded in our scriptures.
When I first read the question, this is how it sounded to me: “Is this the time when, finally, everything will be alright Jesus? Because you taught us to expect good and to work for good and you promised us God will grant us good, and quite frankly, I am tired of waiting. Is this the time?”
I was perfectly comfortable just stopping there with the pleading question and the demand embedded in it. But Jesus doesn’t allow the question to the be the final word. He leaves the disciples, he leaves us, with one final lesson and a reminder of where we go from here.
“It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Sovereign God has set through divine authority,” Jesus teaches us. It is not for us to understand the movement of time in God’s Kingdom. The way that time unfolds is beyond our ability to grasp. Even though we may be living and moving through that time, it is so much bigger than we can grab a hold of. But that is not, again, an abdication of our responsibility. Jesus doesn’t stop there – he doesn’t stop with a simple reminder that God moves in mysterious ways and we shouldn’t worry so much. No. And if anyone tells you that we just need to sit back and wait for God to do God’s thing in this world – then if you remember nothing else, remember this next lesson: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Did you hear that? Where we go from here, what we do next, is laid out in that one sentence. We have the power, through the living memory of Christ, the Holy Spirit of God that was breathed into us in the moment of our creation. We have the power to be witnesses. To what are we called to bear witness? We are witnesses to the lessons of Jesus that we are to give strength to the weak, healing to the sick, hope to the outcast, and humbleness to the powerful. We are to bear witness to the over-turning of the money-changers table in the Temple and to declare that any use of religion for profit or to support empire is a violation of God. We are to bear witness to the reality that if we all know we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity, then we know there is enough for all and we will share freely – feeding thousands with just a few loaves of bread. We are to bear witness to the grief of Jesus when he wept in the garden.
We are to bear witness to resurrection, to knowing that the worst thing is never the last thing. That even in the moments that have the power of death, life exists. That is the story we are to bear witness to, because that story contains in it the hope and possibility of a world that God chooses for us; a world so different than the one we have chosen for ourselves so far.
But we must remember this – to bear witness to this story is not an idle action, telling old tales or thinking that all the miracles are long since past. To bear witness to this story is to live it out, in everything we do. In each moment – those moments filled with joy and those moments filled with grief. To bear witness is to make that story real for all those we encounter, especially those for whom we know God favors – the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the fearful, the children. To bear witness is not to tell idle tales but to live our lives in a way that brings about the world God would choose for us.
And this is where we too often falter. Because it feels too big, too hard. There is too much hurt in this world. It is too big for us, and we don’t know where to begin so we don’t begin at all. But Jesus leaves us with guidance to help us start. Listen again, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Start where you are, Jesus says. Start here, in this space. Don’t allow yourselves to become overwhelmed by trying to bear witness to the resurrecting story to everyone all at once. Start here. Start here, on the corner of Johnson and Broadway.
Start here because as the story is told, and as our witness of that story is lived out, people will notice. They will see that the worst thing is never the last thing and they will begin to tell the story themselves. It will grow and move from this corner out. But begin where you are.
And just in case we still don’t understand, God sent a couple of angels to herald the word of God to the disciples again – “Why are you standing looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the way as you saw him go into heaven.” Why are you looking up to heaven? Jesus is still here, the body of Christ still exists – it is all of you now. The body of Christ is you and me and all of us. Stop looking into heaven, look around to where you are, and bear witness to what you see and tell a better story.
I know, and understand, that for many of you all of this will sound like empty words. I get it – we are so tired and afraid and angry. And we wonder if we have just become used to it all. I must confess, as I watched the news on Tuesday unfold and I saw the first death toll of two people – I breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow, I had convinced myself that two children dying in a school shooting was…I don’t know…was something I could handle. I confess that to you and I confess that to God. I have become too used to gun violence in our country. When the number quickly grew to 14 and then 18 and then 22 – I realized I was too used to that too. And as I sat down to write words for you today, I realized that I have gotten too good at writing words of comfort and conviction in response to this world. And I know many of you have gotten too good at hearing them. So, if you are feeling empty and nothing I have said is stirring you – please know I completely understand. It is a natural response to the trauma of this world as we all seek ways to protect our spirits.
We’ve become too good, too, at protecting our spirits – sometimes even going so far as to close them off from feeling and grieving. This is something I have been noticing a lot in the last several months, and it was really driven home to me this week. I watched as most people, including clergy, jumped right to anger and political finger-pointing. Now, anger is a completely appropriate emotion in reaction to what happened. Anger at the act of violence and anger at the inaction of those who have the power to make it harder for broken people to access guns. Anger is appropriate. But, when that anger is used just for finger-pointing, for blaming, or used as an anchor point so you don’t have to feel the weight of grief – then that anger becomes a tremendous harm to your spirit.
And for some, the compounding traumas of the last several years has created a tremendous and at times unbreakable numbness. Again, in an effort to try to protect our spirits, we just become numb and force away the grief. But, that does not protect our spirits, it makes them brittle, and at real risk of shattering.
On Wednesday night every clergy and congregation in Winona, Lewiston, St. Charles, and Eyota was invited to gather for prayer. And less people gathered either in-person or online than the number of people we were gathering to mourn. This is not a criticism of anyone who chose not to gather in prayer. Not at all. For some, prayer felt pointless and empty, including for some clergy. For some, prayer felt dangerous, too close to touching the hurt – and our instinct is to shield our hurt. For some, prayer felt disingenuous because God feels false or distant or not real right now. I get all of that, I understand, and have felt it myself these last few days and months. But, when 19 fourth graders, two teachers, and an 18-year-old kid who did not do this in a vacuum are killed – and people wall off their grief with numbness or deflect it with anger, then it makes clear to me what the need is.
One of my roles as a spiritual guide and pastor is to help people grieve. Not just funerals or memorial services or even prayer gatherings, but to help people grieve the loss and trauma that has been piling up and becoming unbearable. Grief is not frivolous or a waste of time or a way to diminish the work of justice. Grief is life-support – essential and the only way we can survive. Grief is always hard, over-whelming, painful, and seemingly easy to avoid – though I assure you it is not, it bubbles up in other ways if not given a free outlet. So, for this next season in our community I will be focused on helping you grieve. Not just the shooting, but everything that we have experienced as a community, nation, and world.
One of the primary reasons I am able to do this, the reason my Spirit has not become brittle and on the brink of shattering, is because of the way you have cared for me. In our covenant together, you have provided me with unquestioning support, love, and grace. It is a blessing that I am grateful for each and every day. And that covenant means I need to help you grieve now, soften your spirits so they become stronger.
I am a highly experienced grief counselor, so I know that many if not most of you will at some point come to resent me for this – that is a normal reaction to grief work. I know that and I am prepared for it. So, I do this with not an insignificant amount of personal risk. But to not do so is such a violation of my vows to God and to you. Let me be clear, however. This season of grief work is not about being sad all of the time. It is not about me looking for every bruise on your spirit and poking at it, asking ‘does this hurt?’ That isn’t what grief work is. It is about helping you to feel brave enough, and sure enough of the support around you to allow yourself to feel all of those things you have pushed away or locked away somewhere. This is not going to be a season of doom and gloom. This is going to be a season of resurrection. Because Easter, resurrection, is never fully realized until Good Friday, grief, is experienced in its fullness.
There is a reason you are here today, there was something compelling you to gather. And I don’t believe it was just for the community – the Holy Spirit is at work whether we know it or not, whether we want to believe it or not. There is something stirring deep inside, waiting for us to notice and let it out. And I have come to believe, without understanding, that it is resurrection. It is life in and with God. It is our story. It is our yesterday and today and tomorrow. It is that final lesson from Jesus, to bear witness in the living of our lives and to begin right here where we are. So, let us begin. Amen.
Gentle and Loving God, we are broken open in our grief or we are closed tight against it, or we are somewhere in between. We do not hide this from you, instead we offer it to you in certain belief that you are with us in whatever way we come to meet you in prayer.
We know God that we are called to do something, to say something, to make it all better in some way, but we are not sure how. We don’t know where to go from here but only that we must not remain stuck. So, we begin trying to understand with prayers. We pray for your wisdom and your guidance. We pray for the courage to do what we can in the way that we can, even if that way scares us. We pray that we will never become numb and that our outrage at the violence and anguish in this world will always stir us.
And, most importantly today, we pray for the victims of hate and violence in our world. We pray for the families of children who never returned home, we pray for the children who must carry the memory of seeing their friends murdered, we pray for the educators whom simply want to help children learn but end up needing to place their own bodies in front of bullets. We pray for all the victims of gun violence whose names are drowned out. And we pray for those who find themselves walking into places carrying guns with an intent to kill, because we know they were not born wanting to do this.
We pray for this and everything else on our hearts now in these moments of silence, trusting that you hear…
God of hope, you are unafraid of our grief and rage, and you use it to spur us to action. For this, we are grateful. It is in Jesus’ name we pray, the one who showed us what it is a grieve and what it means to respond to pain with love. And we pray in the way he taught us by raising our voices together…Our Father…