"Never Alone" Message from May 16, 2021
Seventh Sunday of Easter; Ascension Sunday
Scripture: Luke 24: 44-53
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Have you ever been doing something, maybe it was traveling, or creating something, or being part of some group, or working in your own job where the whole time you’re thinking, how did I get so lucky to get to do this? Well, that was my experience as I started seminary. It had taken me a couple of years of discernment after college, with a path that went through Washington, DC working with refugees, then to Kansas City working in a retail store for a few months and applying for PhD programs in Religion, to working in a church, to realize that I felt called to be a pastor.
I hadn’t expected to work in a church. But in applying to doctoral programs in my early twenties, I needed recommendations and one of the recommendations I requested resulted in an offer to serve as an intern in a large suburban church. My job description was pretty vague, though it did specify that young adult ministry was my focus. So I got a list of everyone in the church who was in the young adult category and everyone who had been in the church youth group over the previous eight years and began calling, inviting the person who answered to an initial gathering before church one morning—what faith I had in these young adults to think that a 9am gathering was my best offer to get them to come back to church!
I got to the church early and set up the food and coffee and the room. And they came. They talked about their lives and their hopes. They reconnected with genuine affection. And then we began to serve together most weekends through that summer, building Habitat houses, doing maintenance and yardwork at a ministry called Crosslines in an under-resourced part of Kansas City. We prayed together, laughed together, shared lives together. And a dream began to take shape for me of ministry and serving and pastoring and organizing with people for good. Over coffee or lunch or a walk, I heard hopes as well as struggles from the members of this church, and I was deeply moved at the gift and privilege of being present to the most significant moments of people’s lives.
At the end of that summer, I travelled north with two of my good friends who were heading to Madison, Wisconsin for graduate school. They dropped me off just north of Chicago, where I spent a couple of blissful weeks setting up my room in the large house on Lake Michigan where I’d been offered a space in the home of one of my theological heroes, a woman who’s considered one of the mothers of feminist theology, who was also a professor at my seminary. The academic year began with a retreat day full of singing and praying, talking about the Bible. All day I kept thinking, how did I get so lucky to get to do this?
And then it got even better! I met my wife Elizabeth and knew the experience of being in love. The vision of being a pastor was so clear, I didn’t initially see my coming out as being inconsistent with the dream, even though I knew about the United Methodist Church’s prohibition against LGBTQ clergy. But then, seminary professors and fellow students alike began to say, “No, this won’t work.” Or “You will not be a pastor.” What had been an experience of ministering in joy and hope, imagining a future serving in a local church in Kansas, turned to depression.
In the scene just before our scripture which was read today, Jesus has appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize him but he suggests to them that in his suffering, death and resurrection, all that was foretold in the scriptures would come to pass. But they still don’t recognize him. As they came to the village of Emmaus, they ask him to stay with them, to come inside and break bread with them. And in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, they realize it IS Jesus who has been with them.
He departs from them but they continue talking about him and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread as they now head toward Jerusalem. And there again, Jesus appears and stands among them saying, “Peace be with you.” They could not believe their eyes, but he shows them the wounds in his hands and feet. The scripture says, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”
And then our scripture for today picks up the story. Jesus says to them after he has eaten of the fish, “‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written: that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things,’” he said to them.
Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand three key things: first, that the joy of his presence is still with them; second, that the promise of repentance and reconciliation continues to be real; and finally, that the call to share this Good News to those who follow him, to witness to it, is still very much alive. Your dream, Jesus was saying to the disciples, is still very much alive! But the disciples had a hard time seeing this. They were remembering the halcyon days of being with this charismatic young prophet, their futures of travelling and growing crowds clear in their minds. This is not the future they had imagined. This is not the way they had envisioned sharing the Good News. They can see this is going to be harder than they thought. Where before they could follow and support, basking in the glory of Jesus’ glow, now they had to step up. And they have a different story to tell, one that is more complex, about a suffering God who conquered and persists through love and nonviolence. We can see them, even when Jesus is appearing to them and re-affirming his presence and promise, just shaking their heads, feeling low, saying, “I don’t know about this.”
When I was in seminary, falling deeper into depression as more voices joined the chorus of “you cannot”, I finally sought help and began seeing a therapist. And as we talked, gradually the anger and fog began to lift. At one point as I began to feel better, I asked her why there were times when I still felt low. “You’re grieving the loss of a dream,” she said. Well, while most of the time I would nod to what she said, or reflect about it, in response to that statement I felt a visceral rejection of her words. I imagine she meant to affirm what she saw as true, and in naming that truth, the experience of anger and denial in me could give way to sadness and loss but eventually acceptance. But my whole soul and body reacted strongly against her words and I said, “I’m not grieving a dream, I’m preparing for it!” I had never given up on the call of ministry, I just didn’t know how to make it work.
I don’t believe the disciples stopped believing in the truth and power of what they had experienced with Jesus, or that they stopped feeling called to share his Good News after he was crucified. But after the brutality and violence of his arrest and murder, they didn’t know how. What they thought it would look like was obviously not what it was going to be.
This is true for us so many times in our lives. We have plans. We have a vision of what the future will look like. But then something happens and we have to accept it won’t look like we thought it would. This is a hard process. It takes time and it does involve grief.
We think of Easter as a single day, a high point, but really, it’s not just a day, it’s a season. It’s a season of preparation. It’s the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and the day of Pentecost which we’ll celebrate next Sunday. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, then for the next 48 days we try to make sense of what the heck just happened. Along with the disciples, we grieve the loss of one dream so that we can make way for a new one. This is the work of both grief AND preparation.
During that time in seminary when I was receiving messages from so many directions that what I thought would be my future would not be my future, I was very angry with God. How could you call me to serve and lead me to accept this calling, only to have the way blocked? I wonder if the disciples felt that way, too, on witnessing this gruesome death of their beloved Jesus. But one day, I turned my anger directly at God and yelled at God saying, “How could you do this? What kind of set up was this?” and I heard a clear and loving voice say, “There will always be a place for you to serve.” And in 26 years of ministry that has been true. But I had to let go of what I thought it was going to look like. My therapist was right. I was grieving the loss of a dream. And I was right, too, I was preparing for that dream, just a different version of it.
The Good News for all of us this morning is that though the contours and details of the dream may need to shift, the dream of life lived in fullness, in wholeness, and in joy is still very much alive. The Good News is that there will always be a place for YOU to serve. Go and proclaim this Good News to all who are lost, all who suffer, all who seek life lived in divine presence and in community. And remember, You are witnesses to these things! Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, May 16, 2021
Seventh Sunday after Easter; Ascension Sunday
GATHERING OUR STRENGTH
Prelude: Christ has Broken Down the Walls" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Danica Elliott
Welcome and Dare to Dance Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Opening Hymn: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" UM Hymnal #479 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot
Invocation - Molly Brostrom
LEARNING THE STEPS
Scripture Reading: Luke 24: 44-53 - Brit Toven-Lindsey
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Light Dawns on a Weary World" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Message: "Never Forsaken (the Ascension of Jesus)" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
THE BODY MOVES IN RESPONSE
Hymn of Response: "Be Still, My Soul" UM Hymnal #534 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Call for Prayer - Molly Brostrom
Special Music - Judy Kriege
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Brit Toven-Lindsey
Sharing Our Resources and our Energy - Jamuel Starkey
Offertory: "Jesus, You’re the Center of My Joy" by Richard Smallwood - Charles Lynch
STEPPING OUT INTO THE WORLD
Prayer of Dedication - Jamuel Starkey
Closing Hymn: “I Cannot Dance, O Love, Unless You Lead Me On" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Lift High The Cross" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Virtual Coffee Hour
Immediately following online worship, everyone is invited to virtual coffee hour for a time of connection and conversation: https://bit.ly/ECH5921
Special Thanks To
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Molly Brostrom, Cathryn Bruno, Annette Cayot, Danica Elliott, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Charles Lynch, Jamuel Starkey, Brit Toven-Lindsey Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Design © 2021 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.
Prayer of Dedication © 2021 enfleshed
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.