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Endings and Beginnings

June 2, 2014

“Endings and Beginnings” John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:7-11, 5:5-11 © 6.1.14 Easter 7A (Ascension of the Lord) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One day late in WWII, a B-17 crewman looked out his port waist gun window and saw a shark-nosed aircraft hurtling toward his bomber at incredible speeds. It let loose with several 30mm rounds, which ripped through the aluminum skin of the Flying Fort. The attacker then veered away to engage another plane in the formation. Upon returning to his base somewhere in England, the crewman heard his bomber had been intercepted by a jet. “What’s a jet?” he asked.

The craft that startled the B-17 crew with its speed and firepower was an Me-262, the first operational jet fighter. The first, but not the last. Whether he knew it that day, the waist gunner was witnessing the beginning of the end of an era, namely that of exclusively prop-driven flight.

An old song says “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” (Dan Wilson, “Closing Time”). The world since the 1940s has come to many mile markers, closings, shifts, endings which are beginnings, beginnings that are endings, and in them were the seeds or signals of even more that was to come. The atom bomb. Brown v. Board of Education. The first woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Sputnik. The founding of Wal-Mart. The Kennedy and King assassinations. The Voting Rights Act. The first moon landing. Roe v. Wade. The Challenger disaster. 9/11. 2008. The first website, Facebook post, tweet, cell phone call, digital TV transmission, reality series. The first products from China, Malaysia or Thailand we bought.

Closer to home, all of us witness and have experienced our own endings and beginnings. Quite recently, some in this congregation and in our families have put on gown and mortarboard and walked across a stage to the applause of parents and siblings and friends. With the diploma or degree in hand, we begin a new chapter of our lives, take steps into the unknown. College or a career on our own changes the relationship with parents and other family members, and the way we think of ourselves. Or consider how the papers are filled with engagement and wedding announcements, as couples leave father and mother and cling to each other. A number of you celebrate June anniversaries, and remember your special day. Retirement ends our working life, but now there’s time for travel, leisure, and those projects we always wanted to do, but never had time for. We move to a new town or go back to an old home; there friends and family await or we may be seeking something different, fresh opportunities, a better life for ourselves and our children.

Endings and beginnings. Mile markers. The texts for the morning are all about them. Endings which are beginnings if we will only trust God to lead us on the journey.

John tells us that Jesus has come to that time our Lord called his “hour.” He’s spoken of it before, but only to say it had not yet arrived. Now, though, on his last night with his disciples, the time has wound down, and the moment is here. Like so many prophets and patriarchs before him, he approaches his last days with prayer. John portrays Jesus as a leader with supreme confidence as he faces his fate. He knows what he has accomplished; his mission is done. Somehow in a way we can’t comprehend, God has been fully and really present in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. To have seen him is to have seen the Father; to know him is to know God. Nothing will ever be the same again. This night will be an ending, but also a beginning, because for John, our Lord’s hour includes his resurrection and ascension. There are signals here of a new community, a restored and renewed humanity.

So too with Luke’s ending story. Now we are at the close of a forty day period in which Jesus has taught the disciples we know not what, only that he spoke of the kingdom of God. Our Lord ascends into heaven, but not before giving a promise and a commission. The interpreting angels tell the amazed and no doubt bewildered disciples that in this ending is the sign of a beginning at some future date, when Jesus returns. In the meantime, they need to stop looking up into heaven and set their focus on building community, on preparation for what is to come and for witness to God’s new thing, a baptism not with water, but with the Spirit.

The author of 1 Peter has his own take on the theme. For him and his readers, the final day of judgment and mercy is very near. A cataclysm of cosmic proportions awaits, but from the debris will rise phoenix-like a new heaven and a new earth, a vision of the end expanded on 60 years later in another letter that bears Peter’s name. God’s doing. God’s gift. Not a thing to be feared or alternatively, longed for with a gleam in our eyes, but to be taken seriously as a fact that should shape life right now.

All the texts ask us to consider how and how well we say goodbye to what has gone before and thus how and how well we say hello to what awaits us. When we come to the mile markers on our journeys, what do we do? How do we grieve? How do we greet tomorrow?

We get our first clue for a creative approach from Jesus, who lived his life with an extraordinary sense of giftedness. He knew that the men and women who had been his companions and helpers were entrusted to him by God. It was his task to guard and protect them, like a good steward. He taught and loved and challenged them. So when he came to the end of his life, they didn’t behave like frightened victims, confused children or subservient slaves. They were his friends and successors. They would and could by the power of the Spirit embody his message. What an extraordinary confidence Jesus had in these people, that he could say he was glorified in them!

Do you and I know and accept how incredibly gifted we are? Like Jesus, we have people entrusted to our care. We may have direct influence over them, and they turn to us for help in making a decision. But there are also our neighbors who, whether we know it or not, look to us as examples of conduct or a source of strength. We have so many whom God has placed under our stewardship. There’s the friend who needs a shoulder to cry on. The classmate or co-worker struggling with a moral choice. The children for whom we are role models. The neighbor longing for meaning with whom we could share our story with Jesus. And alongside people, there is the creation, from the animals who are our beloved companions to the precious natural resources all depend on.

It’s simply amazing or as the classic liturgical song Maggie shared with us puts it, a “miraculous thing.” God trusts us with the future, with the well-being of others, with all sorts of gifts. It’s we who now make Jesus known in our life together and as individual believers. In us, God is glorified. In us as much as in those first disciples. That’s our gift, that’s our goal, whoever and wherever we are.

Perhaps nowhere is God more glorified and more evidence given of the power of the gospel than in the display of love and hospitality by a community of faith. The natural tendency, if “the end of all things is near” as 1 Peter says or if you knew your time was short, as with Jesus, would be to circle the wagons, think of yourself, be a bit selfish. If your survival is at stake, it’s hard to think of someone else’s needs, to want to welcome and love the neighbor in distress or maybe even the sister or brother in your community. But the vision here is of a community that constantly surprises, that goes against expectations and cultural norms. It’s one whose life together is of a fundamentally different character and quality than that of any other. That’s what Jesus meant by “eternal life” in John. It’s not life after we die so much as it is a life that is abundant and gracious and open in the here and now. The literal Greek is “life of the ages,” the kind of existence shot through with spiritual energy and the presence of God. A community of faith that knows God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent seeks to live as Jesus did, welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the looked down on, the lonely, the hurting. In it, people use their gifts to serve each other, humbly, with an eye particularly toward those who suffer.

Even more today than in the late first century, that sort of approach to living is radical and counter-cultural. Thanks to our addiction to technology, we are often more isolated from each other than ever. We are connected with the world through our phones, but don’t notice or talk to the people at the meal table with us. Everything we do is personalized, just right for our unique and, we think, better style of living. But most of all, we are afraid of each other, of difference and diversity, and some in our nation exploit that fear for their own selfish ends. Rather than show hospitality, we find ways to get a bigger piece of the pie for ourselves and those like us. Politicians follow the dictates of those who can line their pockets and fund their campaigns. Consider, too, that the typical CEO now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up from 181 times just five years ago (note 1).

In 1985, the late Robert Bellah and his colleagues published Habits of the Heart, a still relevant analysis of American life. They talked about the twin languages we speak, namely, individualism and community. Our native tongue is individualism, but sometimes we can manage a few words of community, speak from the vocabulary of belonging. In 1996, they wrote a new introduction, in which they lamented how individualism had taken even more hold on us, resulting in a decline in what they called “social capital,” that is, all the resources of whatever kind we have as citizens that can be used for the good of all, for mutual benefit. In 2008, another edition was published, which I haven’t seen. But I suspect that the amount of social capital available, and even interest in spending it, had declined even further.

In such a culture, the church has a unique and urgent opportunity, indeed, an obligation, to demonstrate a different kind of life. One in which love is constant and sincere. Where trust is built and maintained. Where people feel a sense of unity and can be open to each other because they know they are protected by God rather than having to provide for their own security. Most of all, where people experience community because beneath all the externals, they are intimately bonded to the One who has gifted them with all they need to live.

M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, wrote last week about today’s teens. “[They] have never seen a federal government that does more than engage in political stalemates. They have no Kennedy who can inspire them to ask what they can do for the country, no King who can make them want to march in the streets for a dream. Instead, they have grown up in a post-9/11 culture that has done everything it can to make them afraid.”

Yet, amazingly, Barnes reports, many teens refuse to “buy the marketed temptations to despair and fear.” Instead, they do all kinds of charitable and mission work and embrace difference with openness. It’s not just the church kids who do that. “A quiet hope abounds in this generation,” Barnes observes. “It seems to me that its members are saying, ‘We get it that our future is filled with obstacles, but we’re just going to keep moving’” (“Stubborn hope,” The Christian Century, May 28, 2014: 35).

The sociologists Strauss and Howe study the generations and the cycles of history. They tell us that those teens and indeed, all of us, are in what they term a “Fourth Turning,” a cyclical, predictable crisis. They write: “This is an era in which America’s institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up—always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic authority revives, cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group. In every instance, Fourth Turnings have eventually become new ‘founding moments’ in America’s history, refreshing and redefining the national identity.” The most recent Fourth Turning was the stock market crash of 1929, and the crisis of this one is also financial, with the expected climax year being 2025. Other Fourth Turnings were the American Revolution and the Civil War (note 2).

What about the Church? During this current Turning, theologians like Phyllis Tickle tell us that we are engaged in a semi-millennial rummage sale, deciding what it can get rid of, and not exactly sure what’s emerging, what’s next. The last such housecleaning was called the Protestant Reformation.

An ending. A beginning. Of what, it’s not yet clear. What shall we do in the meantime? As he faced his death, Jesus prayed fervently. The disciples gathered in the Upper Room didn’t know what was next. They were simply waiting. But they didn’t just sit around staring at each other. They devoted themselves to prayer and building community. 1 Peter advises preparing for the end which is a beginning by adopting disciplines and being alert.

In every new beginning, personal or cultural, is some other beginning’s end. The church that follows Jesus faithfully with prayer and discipline and hospitality can be a model, an interpreter, a beacon of hope, a place of grace and sanity when that end comes, and with it, a beginning.

Note 1:

Note 2:


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