“Work to Be Done”

May 12, 2013


Acts 11:19-26

Acts 1:1-11


I had wonderful experience last Friday that I want to share with you this morning.

I went over to West High School for their Senior Awards Assembly. The first award of that morning was the Matthew Shepard Gold Scholarship, given in honor of the young gay man who was brutally beaten and left to die 15 years ago. It was given to D. K., who came out early in high school and has been active in the West High Colors organization. The scholarship was presented by Representative Dave Loebsak. And when it was given the auditorium filled with high school juniors and seniors stood and applauded and cheered. It was one of those moments when I thought “Is this a great town, or what?”

After all, I’m old enough to recall how different this world once was. My roommate for my first two years in college was gay. Back then not everyone in the dorm understood when he came out. I had another friend who died much too young from AIDS in the 80’s and many who knew him were too troubled to even talk about that. I’m sure some of you can recall similar experiences of the way things were when shame, rejection, and ostracism were standard.

“It gets better,” we’ve been told. And here was a United States Representative presenting this scholarship to a young gay man to the wild acclaim of his high school classmates. I wondered: what would John think, what would Kevin think, if they could have seen this?

The assembly at West High came just six days after the symposium on same-sex marriage that our Mission Board sponsored. It, too, was an inspiring and encouraging event and if you weren’t able to be here, I hope that you saw or read some of the media coverage.

The front page story in The Daily Iowan last Monday carried the headline: “Work to be done.”

That was the challenge that the Episcopalian Bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson, gave in his keynote address here in this sanctuary. Reflecting on this, his first visit to our state, he said: “I love being in Iowa. The East and West Coasts are the low hanging fruit, but the real work to be done is in the center of the country.”

Now, of course, those of us who live in the Midwest might take exception to Bishop Robinson’s highfalutin East-coast idea that the center of the country is such a problematic region. After all, we in Iowa have been celebrating marriage equality for four years now. And in a kind of pre-Mother’s Day decision, our Supreme Court expanded their 2009 decision a little over a week ago to require that a child’s birth certificate include the names of both parents, regardless of gender. Our neighbors to the north in Minnesota are poised to pass a bill on Monday allowing same-sex marriage that their governor is expected to sign. And just last Thursday Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called on the Illinois House to send him legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, telling the legislators that they’d had plenty of time to make up their mind on the issue.

So, yes, we need to remind those fancy East-and-West-Coast types that we here in the flyover zone are moving with the rest of the nation toward the equality of all people, often taking the lead.

And yet, the bishop was onto something when he suggested that legislative and judicial victories in the struggle for marriage equality are not the end. “Just because some of these things have come to be doesn’t mean the work is over. There are still hearts and minds to be won,” he told us.

The real work to be done is in the center of the country.

Real work. Right here.

Which brings us to that story of the ascension from the Acts of the Apostles.

“You will receive power,” the risen Christ tells the disciples. Still bearing the marks of crucifixion, the risen Christ says to his followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That is to say, “there’s real work to be done—and you’re the ones who will do it.”

Listen again to the disciples. It is difficult for them to shake off their old concerns. Christ is risen—the first sign of God’s new creation. His followers respond by dragging out their old hopes. It’s as though they had some rusted-out automobile that they want brought back to mint condition. “Lord, is this the time?” they ask. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They long for lost political power. They want to be back on top.

Memories of faded glory still dance in their minds.

Maybe now. Maybe now they will experience those wonderful days of the old kingdom. Maybe now what their nation lost centuries ago will be given back to them.

Instead, something beyond all they could ask or imagine is coming into being. God’s new creation in all its wonder is starting to unfold before them.

This is the resurrection lesson we are still learning.

Jesus responds to overwhelmed, questioning followers with the promise of power, with the assurance that they will be able to act in their world—and with the charge to get on with the work to be done.

Living in the power of the resurrection, we set aside old hopes and old expectations so that God can do a new thing in our midst, so that God can do a new thing through us.

This was the resurrection lesson the followers of Jesus had to learn.

The response of the risen Christ might not be what we expect to hear, but it is a response that is typical of Jesus. Not the old, but the new. The promise comes: “You will receive power.”

You will receive the ability to act.

In the midst of all that overwhelms us

We are given the power to change what needs changing.

We are given the power to be agents of God’s love in the world—to take risks for the good.

I’ve focused on same sex marriage and issues of civil rights because that’s what’s been at the forefront of the news, the life of this congregation, and of my own life recently. But there’s other work to be done as well.

Perhaps you heard last week that through the hard work of human beings around the globe there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 3 million years. The challenges that reality presents are enormous and usually ignored.

While we worry about terrorism, gun violence continues to take far more lives in our nation than terrorist attacks.

The growing disparity of income is creating a nation—even a world—divided between those who have and those who have not. The Eastern Iowa Center for Worker Justice is helping us to see the problems faced by workers from around the world who face abuse, harassment, and wage theft here in Iowa City.

There’s work to be done—and I’m sure that each one of you hears a part of this broken world that cries out for attention and action by Christian individuals and congregations.

Listen again as Jesus tells us, “You will be my witness in all the world.” As the early followers of Jesus faced persecution, something happened that might not have been expected. Those followers spread out from Jerusalem as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch and their numbers increased.

There in Antioch, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, the disciples were first called “Christians.” The word meant something like “partisans of Christ.”

And it was most likely a term of reproach. It was a derogatory word, accompanied by a sneer when it was uttered.

After two thousand years of use, “Christian” has once again become a troublesome term for many—only now they are in the church.

Maybe you know what I mean.

Christians, we hear, don’t believe in climate change.

Christians, we hear, cling to their guns.

Christians, we hear, are opposed to immigration reform.

During one of the panel discussions at the symposium on marriage equality, our own Raven Rowe was talking about how difficult it is to claim the name “Christian.” People get the wrong idea. So she has to talk about what she calls the “Christian but.” You know: I’m a Christian, but I’m not opposed to women’s rights.” “I’m a Christian, but I accept scientific conclusions that call for better stewardship of creation.” “I’m a Christian, but I’m not a homophobe.”

Perhaps this is why Bishop Robinson said that “It’s easier to come out as gay to straight people than to come out as religious to gay people.”

You’ve probably tried to explain yourself to others: “I’m a Christian, but I’m not that kind of Christian.”

In the popular imagination one group of “Christians” has been so identified with this word that the rest of us are reluctant to use this name as our own. Oh, just listen to me when I preach. I talk about “people of faith,” or “religious communities” as though I don’t want to offend all of you by pointing out the fact that you—we—are Christians and that on a regular basis we gather in churches.

Frank Bruni addressed this in his column in The New York Times last Monday: “We refer incessantly in this country to the ‘religious right,’” he said, “a phrase routinely presented as if it’s some sort of syllogism: to be devoutly religious is to gravitate to a certain side of the political spectrum, one set of values dictating the other. ‘Christian conservatives’ is an almost equally ubiquitous bit of alliteration.”
That’s the kind of association that many of us find so troubling.

“But,” Bruni adds, (and maybe that’s a Christian but) “But there’s a religious center. A religious left. There are Christian moderates and Christian liberals: less alliterative and less dogmatic, but perhaps no less concerned with acting in ways that reflect moral ideals. We should better acknowledge that and them.”[1]

“You will be witnesses,” the risen Christ tells us.

A witness doesn’t coerce others to act in certain ways. A witness doesn’t demand that people adopt a particular set of beliefs.

Witnesses simply and clearly state what they have seen and heard. We tell of the ways that God is acting in the world in and through Jesus Christ. We point out where it’s getting better, recalling that the arc of history is long but that it bends toward justice. We point out where the love and judgment and grace of God need to be brought to bear upon conditions that are leading to death and despair so that the abundant life that God desires for all people and all creation might be known within an ever-expanding circle.

And because our lives have been seized by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—for reasons and in ways we often can’t quite explain, because we find hope in the affirmation that Christ is risen, let us take up the work to be done as Christians—as partisans of the risen Christ who calls us and calls this world from despair to hope, from fear to courage, from death to new life.

[1] Frank Bruni, “Religion Beyond the Right, NYTimes, May 6, 2013.