This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, Oregon on May 20, 2012. During the previous week, our church’s Session sent out a letter that announced to the congregation we were moving from 3 services to 1 service. I knew it was going to be a Sunday where some people would be coming to church pleased about the decision, and others wouldn’t. Then I saw Keith Anderson mention The Avengers and the body of Christ…and it all clicked. My text was Luke 24:44-53.
Two weeks ago, I was in Washington, D.C. for a conference on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity. Those who work in the field of children’s and youth ministries gathered together to see what was changing in this new postmodern religious and spiritual landscape, and how that might affect the way we minister to children and youth. I learned a lot and spent some wonderful time with colleagues, but perhaps the highlight of my time, was taking a break one evening with a few fellow ministers, and going to see The Avengers.
Many of you are probably familiar with The Avengers. So far, the movie has brought in over $1 billion at the box office, which makes it the 9th highest-grossing film of all time worldwide, and the highest-grossing film of 2012. The Avengers is the latest in a series of blockbuster movies made based on the Marvel Comics series. Others that you might be familiar with are the Iron Man movies, Spiderman, X-Men and the Incredible Hulk, among others.
For those of you who haven’t seen The Avengers yet, I need to share with you a bit about the movie, and I think I can do it without giving away too many spoilers.
It all starts when Loki meets with a leader of an alien race called the Chitauri. In exchange for retrieving the Tesseract, a powerful energy source, Loki is promised an army of Chitauri warriors, who will help enslave the human race to Loki. As soon as Loki steals the Tesseract, Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) sets out to recruit Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor to work with Black Widow and Hawkeye as they join forces to try and defeat Loki, who is actually Thor’s adopted brother.
Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor have all been off doing their own things. Thor has been helping keep watch over Earth; the Hulk, also known as Dr. Bruce Banner, has been living and working as a doctor in India, helping very poor people. They’re all doing pretty well on their own, but Director Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative, and begins the process of recruiting them all to come together and essentially, save the world from the attack of Loki and the Chitauri army.
Little did I know, when I decided to skip an evening panel on violence at the conference…to go and see a very violent movie…that I would walk away having enjoyed being thrilled and entertained, but also having seen one of the most vivid examples of the body of Christ I’ve ever encountered.
You see, the Avengers were a pretty messed up group. Tony Stark, who becomes Iron Man when he puts on his suit, is an ego-maniac, a highly volatile character who seems to be only concerned with himself. Dr. Banner is brilliant, but when he gets mad, he can’t control his anger, and he turns into a huge, incredible, scary green monster who can’t control his physical violence, the Hulk. Thor’s adopted brother is trying to destroy Earth, and when you see all of the Avengers coming together to try and figure out how to deal with Loki and Tesseract, you realize that they just might destroy themselves, they’re having such a hard time getting along.
You might ask, “If Director Fury knew this before trying to get them all back together…why would he proceed?” Surely he could have still put together a crack-team, but just left out one or two of the Avengers for a bit of peace and balance…but no. No, he knew the real potential of all the Avengers when they all come together. And that’s the thing.
On their own – they were doing good things…they were helping others in the world…
But there was no way that just one of them could have taken on the Chitauri army…they would have been easily defeated.
And Director Fury knew that…he knew that the Avengers could do even greater things if he was able to bring them all together.
However, when he did, it wasn’t easy. As I mentioned…they were all pretty messed up, had their own issues, their own problems…but in the end, they were able to rally together, to set aside their differences and work toward the common mission of protecting the earth from the Chitauri.
We, in a way, have also been on our own for the past couple years. We’ve been doing good things, glorifying God with our diverse styles of worship and developing community with one another. But much like Director Fury realized it was time to call the Avengers together, your Session, after almost a year of prayer, discussion and discernment, has decided that it’s time to call this church together, to “join forces” in a way and celebrate being a church family together.
After spending 10 months in prayer, discernment, conversations, cottage meetings and much more, the Session’s desire is that we might “create an environment that is welcoming to new people and renew our church family as we gather together for worship, nurture and fellowship.”
There are many ways we’ll be working toward that in the coming months, and the first is a change to our Sunday morning schedule. Starting June 17, we will gather together for a time of Christian education and formation at 9am, followed by a multi-generational worship service at 10am, followed by a time of fellowship for all.
It goes without saying that this is going to be a welcome change for some, and possibly frustrating news for others. We have developed fairly close-knit communities among the three services that we have here at First Pres, and many may feel like they are losing that community when we come together for one service.
If you watch The Avengers, you’ll see that it’s not always easy for them to come and work together. They have different ideas of how to fight the Chitauri army, they don’t always see eye-to-eye, but in the end, they realize that they are better together than on their own.
One thing that helped the Avengers come together was the fact that they shared a common mission – a desire to protect the world from the invasion of the Chitauri.
We too have a common mission, in that we are all invited to participate in the misson of God, to join together, partner with God, and seek to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.
This is no minor mission, and so we all need each other to be able to work toward accomplishing this goal. Luckily, we have an advantage over the Avengers. While some of them had superhuman strength, extraordinary powers and advanced technology, we are promised something different. Something better. We will celebrate it more next week, but we get a glimpse of it this week.
The risen Christ, speaking with his disciples, tells them to stay in the city until they have been furnished with power. The Message translation says “until you are equipped with power from on high.” We then see him leading them out to Bethany, where he blesses them and then is taken up into the heavens.
That’s it. A blessing. And he’s gone. I get an image from Star Trek of Jesus being beamed up, and I’m trying to imagine what my response would be if I were one of the disciples. I think I’d be confused. I’d be a little freaked out. I’d probably be afraid. Here is the one who I’ve been following, have watched die, and then seen raised from the dead….and then he’s gone again.
At the very least, I think I’d feel alone.
But what does our passage say about the disciples?
“They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.”
The Message translation tells us that the disciples were bursting with joy. Bursting. At a moment when they they could have been sad, and fearful and unsure about the future. With the promise of the Holy Spirit fresh in their minds, with the realization that they wouldn’t be alone, that God would be with them, through the presence of the Spirit, they were able to overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God.
The Avengers present a beautiful example of the beauty, diversity and messiness of the body of Christ and its local expression in individual congregations. We can look to the Avengers and see how they truly were better, more powerful and more capable of accomplishing great things, like saving the world, once they all came together and worked together.
We too have that opportunity now. We have that opportunity to join forces, to come together as a reunited church family and work toward accomplishing God’s mission here in Ashland and around the world.
And we do not do it alone. We have each other. And we have the promise of the power that will come from on high.
As I mentioned, your Session has worked hard in arriving at this decision. But that does not mean that we all take lightly the fact that change is never easy, and it may take us awhile to live into this new reality. The luncheon following the 10:30 service today will provide a wonderful opportunity for you to hear more from your Session and to listen as they share some of their hopes and dreams with you.
Like the disciples after Jesus ascended into the heavens, may we be a people of God who are bursting forth in joy, a joy that might not make sense in the midst of our circumstances, but a joy that might rest confident in knowing that we will be given that power that comes from on high, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit will be with us through this time of transition, to comfort us and be our companion.
I would strongly encourage everyone to come back for the luncheon following the 10:30 service, to have a chance to come together and listen to one another, and really give this new vision a chance before rejecting it outright. I would especially encourage those of you who are not pleased with this change to come and participate in this conversation, as we, together, as a community, live into this new season of our life together at First Pres Ashland.
Part of my decision to accept a call to be your associate pastor here was my sense and understanding that this church was a welcoming and inclusive church, a place where everyone could come and be accepted. I’ve seen that in a variety of ways here over the past 6 months, and yet, I think that this change will help us to become an even more welcoming place. I hope that a months down the road, we will be a community that loves to join together in multi-generational worship, loving and celebrating our diversity, and realizing that we truly are better together than apart.
I hope that years from now, when someone mentions the First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, we might be known, like those early followers in the way of Jesus, as the people who were continuously in the church, praising God together. And as we prepare to receive the power from on high next Sunday on Pentecost, I leave you with this prayer called “Chasing the Holy Spirit”:
May the breath of the Holy Spirit comfort you,
May the winds of the Spirit change you,
May the fire of the Spirit empower you,
And may the Wild Goose lead you places
you would never have found on your own. Amen.