It gets better!

Lessons of the Day: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27

You are probably aware of the motivational types of posters. There is the one with the cat hanging on with dare life, a caption reads: “Hang in  there!” There is one with a hand outstretched towards a night sky with the words, “Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars.” There are myriad motivational posters, usually with word, a picture, a caption that will make you smile or offer a silent version of “Amen!”

But what about demotivational posters? Have you seen them? There is one with that same cat hanging from a rope; but, instead of “Hang in there!,” the caption reads: “Give Up! Sometimes hanging in there just makes you look like a bigger loser.” There is another one with the word ‘Potential’ in large print, a caption on the bottom reads: “Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up!” Or, the one for ‘Distinction’ with the picture of four pencils, three of which are worn down, the other still looking fresh. The caption reads: “Looking sharp is easy when you haven’t done any work.”

A popular clinical psychologist by the name of Paula Bloom has recently taken on “the epidemic of pessimism.” She will often talk about people that come her who don’t really want someone to listen to them. They want more than that.

“They want me to agree with them! They can almost be evangelical about their pessimism. Sometimes I have a strong urge to just say, ‘Stop trying to convert me. I get that it hurts. I get that you’re struggling. But the idea that everything in this world is horrible and I am a jerk because I don’t agree, now that is a different story.” (“Evangelical Pessimists, Stop Tyring to Convert Me.” April 5, 2010.

This is where I really want to jump back into that room with the eleven disciples. I want to warn them to be careful not to give in to despair or pain or pessimism.

Let’s be real here. In the narrative of John’s Gospel, what Jesus tells the disciples at this moment is going to cause wonderment, confusion, and deep pain. “I am going to the Father,” Jesus tells them. Now, preachers like me are supposed to tell you that this lesson from John 14 anticipates the coming of the Holy Spirit. That is, after all, why we read this part of John on Pentecost Sunday. Preachers like me might have a little summary about how Jesus is promising that if you follow him, you will do the works that he does, in fact, you will do greater works than these (cf. John 14:12).

We preachers might also talk about Philip, yet another disciples – even one of the eleven – who just doesn’t seem to get it. Philip is the “trust, yet verify” sort who wants proof to be satisified. We might ask if a little bit of Philip resides in us.

But today, I don’t want to be complicit in simply labelling this narrative as “The Last Discourse,” calling it the promise narrative or the Story of a Verifying Philip. I will not escort the humanity and the vulnerability out of the story. Jesus has just told his disciples, “I am going to the Father!” That means that Jesus is going away. Ouch!!!

Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of those eleven disciples. They had witnessed Mary anoint Jesus: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” They had watched as Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem and then predicted his own death: “The light is with you for a little longer.” Jesus has washed the disciples feet, supped with them, and foretold that one would betray him: “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Jesus has foretold Peter’s denial.

Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples! This is the fourth time in a day (following the narrative timeline) that Jesus has foretold of his betrayal, death, or going away (12:8 – with Mary; 12:35 – after his triumphal entry; 13:21 – after the washing of the feet; and, 14:12). And this isn’t even the first sequence of such talk. In John 7, when Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Sukkoth, the festival of Booths, Jesus insists that he “will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come” (John 7:33-34).  

If you are one of those eleven, what are you thinking? What could possibly be on the other end? What could possibly be on the road ahead that is anything other than cause for despair?

But here’s the thing, Jesus is no pessimist, no purveyor of; but, is rather bent on pointing out that there is something up ahead.

Indeed, even as Jesus knows that what he is says causes their hearts to break, he wants them to keep their eyes on the kingdom, on the possibility of life, and a quality of life that is called abundant, for them and for all of creation. Jesus insists and his resurrection demonstrates that it’s not over!

When our hearts are breaking after the loss of a beloved spouse or child or friend? ….when we hear the news of an illness? ….in the first days after a surgery? …in the midst of a difficult job? ….in the throws of a difficult semester? …in the dark days of winter? Whenever it is that we are in the trenches, who was there to say: “It’s not over!”

There was a woman named Dorothy Day who told the poor and hungry of New York, and who told those weary of war, “It’s not over!”

There was Oscar Romero who told the people of El Salvador, suffering as they were under oppression and violence, “It’s not over!”

There was Rosa Parks who sat at the front of the bus and told here oppressors, “It’s not over!”

There is Desmond Tutu who shouted to a people living under apartheid, “It’s not over!”

There was a man named Dan Savage who decided he wanted to be a voice that cried out. He began his work in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas, as well as others who were killed because they were gay or people suspected them of being gay. Savage recalls thinking, “I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have somehow intervened in the life Billy Lucas and others.” Savage wanted them to know that no matter how bad it was, and no matter how deeply they hurt, that It’s not over…it gets better!” His “It Gets Better Project” aims to prevent suicide among LGBT teens.

I was looking at my book collection the other day and noted how many of my volumes had subtitles, an additional explanation of what the book’s subject. What if the Bible had a subtitle? I think that a good subtitle for The Bible might be, “It gets better!”

Think about the narrative arc of the story, the trajectory of what the scriptures relate to us of how God and humanity have gotten along. Consider the story of Adam and Eve, a story we often focus on as somehow a story of forfeiting our divinely intended blessing. What if we reconsidered that story as one that is really about God who says, “I see what you did but I’m not done yet.” What if we reconsider that the story is about a God who gets back to work, insisting that it gets better!

Do you remember the narrative of Abram and Sarai, how God brought them into covenant with God’s very self. Abram, now Abraham, messed up a few times but God got back to work and it got better. Ultimately, it seemed that the children and grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah seemed to settle into the covenant, really seemed to be bringing forth the kingdom and the creation that God intended. Jealousy got in the way, a brother got sold to some merchants heading to Egpyt, and four-hundred years of slavery ensued. But what if that story is really about the God who says, “It wasn’t what I intended but there will be more to this story. It gets better.”

And that whole thing with God calling Moses and the people from Egypt. There was sin in the desert but God was faithful. It might not have been what God intended, and while the people had to wander for a few years, it got better.

Recall the narrative of Saul, who was anointed but lost God’s favor. And recall the coming of David, who united the people, but whose grandchildren would argue and fight, only to live into the moment when the kingdom is split. It really looks bleak, like there is no such thing as the kingdom of God. But what if this story, too, is about God saying, “This is perhaps not what I had in mind, but I have redemptive work yet to do. It gets better”

Now, what if God comes as a child to a single teenage mother, to a town nobody thought much of, and this child grows into young adult who took a three year pilgrimage just to prove to us that the kingdom is, in fact, near. Then, what if we respond in apathy, and ultimately execute the one who loves us most. What if, even then, the story is really about the God who says, “It’s not over! I have more work to do!” And God raises his son from the dead.  It gets better.

Today is the Pentecost moment when the Church steps back to make note of how God pours out the Holy Spirit on God’s people. It’s not a moment in scripture where you and I are promised a happy, go-lucky life…to be some kind of eternal optimist.

Here is what it does promise: The promise of Pentecost is that God is still working. The story is not over. And best of all, you and I have a role to play.

So tell somebody, maybe even more than one somebody, today, tomorrow, this week that it gets better. Let them experience that peace that Jesus continues to give. Let them taste and see for themselves that God is good. And the next time you are in a room and that one-liner is spoken, that one-liner about the world going to hell in a handbasket…Step back and remember, use words if you must, to say that the waters of your baptism compel you to tell another story. It’s getting better.

Lessons from the Feast of Pentecost, Year C: John 14:1-17, 25-27; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17

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