Plunging Between the Numbered Verses

Acts 1:6-14 – The Seventh Sunday of Easter – for May 28, 2017

“They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here . . .” (Acts 1:11)

When first reading the lectionary’s four scripture lessons this week, boredom was my companion. Or is “bored” overly harsh? Still, the assigned passages were either too familiar or lacked inspiration.

I started with John 17:1-11. And then onto Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, and I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11. Early morning by early morning, I sought one that tickled my fancy.

Near week’s end, my fancy remained tickle free.

If I were now serving a congregation, striving to be open to God’s guidance while trusting my homiletic cleverness, I’d be a tad panicked. After all, Sunday’s coming. What to preach? What to preach! Help . . .

However, when serving a church—even in the honeymoon phase as a newly appointed minister, when I hardly knew the members and couldn’t tell which key opened the sanctuary versus the storeroom—I was preaching to those people at that particular moment.

While listening to and learning from the ancient, living Biblical words, I was also alert to the here-and-now situations of real people with real experiences:

  • Had there been a recent death or birth in the congregation?
  • Was the church in serious debt or debating a serious issue?
  • Had there been a hate crime or a hopeful event in the city where the church was located?
  • Had a church member’s child, serving in the military, been hurt or killed while far from home?

Oh, the ways congregations—small or large, liberal or conservative, rural or urban, dying in the inner city or thriving in the suburbs—are alike! People hurt. People unwittingly (and wittingly) do stupid things. People argue. People tell you they’re fine when they’re not. People deceive, hoard, and outright cheat. However, they are also as beautiful as they are broken. Honest. Hopeful. Resilient. Tender. People delight, bless, and unexpectedly forgive.

If the current feeble verses from the Bible don’t float your boat, preacher, then ignore them! Boldly or foolishly clear your throat, discard the inadequate words on the flimsy papers taunting you from the pulpit, and instead gaze into the faces filled with dread and longing, anxiety and humility.

And yet, we preach the word, don’t we? Those weary and wondering folks in the pews need more than a preacher’s sympathy or challenges. Even the ones attending because of old habit or fresh guilt want to glimpse Gospel truth.

True enough.

I read the lectionary. Again. I explore the sea of scriptural nouns and verbs. I plunge between the numbered verses, hold my breath, and want to grasp enough hope before running out of air.

John’s Gospel still bores me. Sorry. I’m sure others would be inspired.

The Psalm (again) caused my eyes to glaze over. I couldn’t discern its ancient eternal wisdom, and then was distracted by wanting to heat up my coffee. Some days and some Psalms are like this.

I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 birthed my biases before reading it. I’m irked from the get-go when a lectionary reading is shredded like chicken salad. Why are verses skipped? What was wrong with including the end of Chapter 4 or the beginning of Chapter 5? Weak-willed and cynical, I discard I Peter without giving it a chance.

I’m left with Acts.

I’m left with glaring at the remaining words and staring out my pre-dawn office window, knowing I don’t serve a congregation.

Who cares what I don’t preach?

And yet, if only for the sake of discipline, I read the damned (and blessed) scripture again.

Two things eventually nudged me in Acts. That’s good. Being nudged has been the start of many darn fine sermons.

Following Jesus’ final words and cloudy flight to heaven, the befuddled disciples trudged back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. They traveled “a Sabbath day’s journey.”

Huh? What’s a Sabbath day’s journey?

I had to look it up. It’s so Jewish. It’s so part of the endless restrictions based on faith’s obfuscation. Though (inevitably) there were various ways of calculating the distance, most sources suggested the trip’s length was limited to 2,000* cubits—or maybe 4,000* cubits for a round trip. Or maybe . . .

2,000 cubits is less than a mile. How long would it take to stride a mile or less? If in reasonable shape, probably not long. Or, if dawdling, say to smell the roses (which we all should do more often), 2,000 cubits could involve a nice chunk of the day.

Was the writer of Acts (also Luke’s author) reminding readers that the disciples were honoring their Jewish roots? Possible. Was this a reminder that every journey started with a first step? Sure. But for me, as obvious as it is, those cubits between the Mount of Olives and a room in Jerusalem were a reminder that faith is forever a journey.

Which takes me to the other nudge.

In my fifth or tenth reading of Acts, I realized I’d skimmed over the best (for me) part.

Two angels appeared. This happened after Jesus bid farewell and before the disciples returned to Jerusalem. While the writer of Luke/Acts wasn’t above tossing in an occasional angel to deliver God’s message, he never went overboard with them. But here is one of their infrequent appearances, white robed and asking the most troubling of questions for anyone foolishly seeking to follow Jesus:

Why are you standing here?

(Oh sure, the question and the verse were longer: Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? But you get my drift, don’t you?)

You may not be a Galilean, but it’s still your question.

You may not be gazing toward heaven—maybe you’re dwelling on past mistakes or fretting about an uncertain future—but it’s still your question.

What will you do now?

In the pews or on the streets, with loved ones or complete strangers, at the outset of a career or careening toward retirement, it’s one of faith’s essential questions. This 2,000-year old faith, with its odd 2,000 cubit long sojourns, is always about today’s scary and sacred decision to move toward loving God and serving neighbor.

I guess I was preaching to a congregation.

Of one . . . me.

Or more . . . you?

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* If you do your own research, you’ll likely uncover other possible distances, but they all appear to be based on 2,000 cubits. Why that figure? Hey, I’m not gonna do all of your work for you!

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