Sermon, May 28, 2017
Today’s scripture is kind of fascinating, in that it’s two books from the same author. Technically for worship we were supposed to read Acts first, as it is currently in the place of the Old Testament reading, but I reversed it because it’s more accurate.
Luke’s gospel is known as the storyteller in the bible. He is thought to be Greek, and not a Jew - the only Gentile to write a book of the bible. And he clearly wrote his gospel with a Gentile audience in mind. It reads more like a novel in the Greek tradition, so anyone on the street of a Greek city picking up Luke's gospel would have felt at home with it if they were able to read. Throughout his narrative, he points out things that a Gentile audience would not have assumed, like Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day – an expectation when talking to Jewish audiences but something that needed explaining in other contexts. Luke made sure to give a detailed account of everything he wrote, so that those who were not as familiar with Jewish traditions, customs, places, and Old Testament references would be able to understand the history of Jesus and the plan of salvation. Scholars also believe that Luke is the author of the book of Acts of the Apostles. So what we just read, the conclusion of the Gospel narrative of Luke, and the introductory paragraph of his next chapter, the Acts of the Apostles, is how it would have been written. He addresses it to Theophilus – who may have been a real person, but which in Greek also means, ‘Friend of God’.
Last week I mentioned that I have become a little obsessed with the musical Hamilton…because the sickness has infected my family out East, both in Boston and in Illinois, and they strategically left the CD in my car during my father’s visit, and then forced me to listen to it during my sister’s visit. It’s a bit like an infection…and now that I’m addicted to it I’m becoming contagious.
Anyways, the last song in the musical is called, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Hamilton is one of the Founding Fathers, an architect of so much in our country, but often is forgotten or overlooked because he was never President. After he was shot and killed in a duel, his wife Eliza worked for the next 50 years to publish some accurate story of him. She started an 18th Century version of scrapbooking.
Monday is Memorial Day, a day that we make a point to remember the people who have died for our country. It is the day we remember the people in our history, the people who made that history possible. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1966, but some historians source it to 1865. On May 1 of 1865, former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina honored 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They uncovered their bodies and for 2 weeks, worked to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated. Doubtless, this was just one episode among dozens in cities across our war-torn country where people were mourning the dead and retrieving their loved ones. This story is just one retelling of the countless sacrifices of brave men and women who have allowed us the freedom to tell our layered American story.
That got me to thinking… When do we begin to write things down? When is it that we see the need for a written record? What power is there in telling the story?
My mother has a binder that has a special place in our home, and our hearts. It holds her family’s genealogy going back to those who emigrated from the Netherlands. It was prepared by a second cousin on her mother’s side - by the only remaining relative who remembers such things. The binder is special because my mother’s mother, my grandmother, died when my mother was 7 years old. It holds all the family history she didn’t even know to ask prior to the gift of the binder.
On my father’s side, my grandmother was a German War Bride, brought here after my grandfather was stationed in Germany in WWII. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t get more details from my grandmother about her remarkable life, first in Germany and then as an immigrant here, when she was alive – or from my grandfather, for that matter. There are untold stories there that I’ve lost forever. The history of our lives, the stories and anecdotes that make our heritage rich, passes with the people who live it. Sometimes we don’t realize that we want it until after they are gone.
The need to remember, the motivation to write things down for posterity, often becomes important only once someone has passed away. We write about the things that made us whole, the things that bind us together, the things that caused pivots in the pathway of life. We memorialize the important things – unlike the written things we find on the internet today, things designed to provoke outrage, or fear, or anger, or persecution and defensiveness – when we write our histories, we write about wisdom. We write about choices. We write about suffering and grief and triumph and success. We write for the legacy. We write to offer guidance to the next generation.
Luke knew that the story they had to tell was too precious to fade with the passing of the generations. These incredible things they had experienced were astounding. They met this man, who seemed to have a connection with God. He ate and drank with them. He provided endless bounties of food. He loved and laughed with them. He did miracle healings in front of their eyes. He lamented and cried with them. He showed no fear at brandishing of deadly power. He prayed and taught for them. He walked the earth after dying. He comforted and guided them. He withdrew into heaven before their eyes.
They were witnesses, and wow did they have a story to tell. A story that could change your life.
Looking back in time, it seems obvious to us that the Gospels were written to witness to Jesus’ life. But historically, they weren’t written down immediately. People lived Christ’s message and told Christ’s story for decades before anyone put pen to paper – or perhaps feather quill to parchment. It’s approximately 70 AD, or 70 years after the death of Christ when Luke produces his Gospel. Why do you think they chose that particular moment to write down all they had witnessed to?
Perhaps it was because some members of the community were ready to leave the nest – to leave their Palestinian-Jewish community and go to farther lands, and the written version would help with translation. Perhaps it was because they wanted the opportunity to shape what was remembered about Jesus – create the most accurate or understandable version of these powerful events. Or, maybe it was because they were afraid the stories were about the pass with an aging community.
For the fledgling Christian community, 70 years after the death of Jesus was probably the second generation that has been living in the Christ tradition. Now the children of the people who knew Jesus were coming of age and someone must have been worried that the story they loved to tell would be weakened by the generations removed, when there were so many more people they needed to reach in the future.
We write things down for the living.
It’s the living who need our histories, our scrapbooks, our genealogy, and our scriptures. We write down the things we’ve witnessed to help the living understand their heritage, to find their place in the context of generations. It’s the living who need to know their family traits that give them character, and their moral foundation to gain wisdom in the choices they will face in life.
We write things down for the living.
It’s the living who can learn lessons from the past, who can peer inside the circumstances and gain insight from our choices. It’s the living who can carry forth the legacy, who can live into the Gospel, who can take action to right past wrongs or build on past ‘rights’ to expand the realm of God’s Kingdom.
We write things down for the living.
And God keeps sending angels to remind us about the living. While the disciples stand around staring into the sky, two messengers appear to them. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Like the angel that appears at the empty tomb, asking Mary, “Why do to you look for the living among the dead?” God is always pointing us back toward the living, the people in Jerusalem, the people who need God’s love and service.
How often does the church get caught up in arguments staring up into heaven? How much time do we waste stargazing rather than witnessing to Jesus’ life and death is in our lives, in our actions? Luke’s gospel story intentionally ends with a transition to the church’s ministry rather than a summary of Jesus’ life and death and meaning. It emphasizes the legacy of Christ that will be presented to, and then present in, the disciples in the coming days - a foreshadowing of Pentecost. Each time I hear these passages, it reminds me of God saying, “Why do you dillydally? You know the goal. Get to Jerusalem, and get to work!”
On this Ascension Sunday, God is pointing us back to the living, where we might witness God, and where we can be God’s witness. But most importantly, the story points us back to the living so that the world may witness God through us.
Amen and Amen.