Isaiah 58: 6-12
As Luke tells the story of the end of Easter day, the followers of Jesus have been through a lot. In the morning some of the women had found an empty tomb. The men regarded their report as an idle tale. Later in the day two followers of Jesus return from Emmaus telling how the risen Christ had been made know to them in the breaking of bread.
And while they are still talking, Jesus stands among them with his gift of peace.
How do his followers respond?
They are startled and terrified. They think they are seeing a ghost.
The response of the disciples provides a kind of strange comfort. Their primary reactions to the resurrection are doubt and fear.
And if we think about it, we begin to understand why:
The resurrection lays claim upon our lives—it might be easier to simply doubt it and avoid that claim.
The resurrection calls us into a new way of life—fear might be the fitting response.
To people caught up in joy and disbelief and astonished wonder—to us as much as to those original disciples—the risen Christ issues a new call to action.
But first, he tells his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
“Stay in the city.”
Here in Iowa City we love the city.
There was an article in the Press-Citizen last week about what the author, Dick Hakes, called “an Iowa City/Chicago bro-fest of considerable magnitude.” He said that the bond between these two cities is strong. “Many, many area residents we encounter these days have either lived in the Windy City at one time or another, have kids or grandkids there or travel there often to bask in its multitude of massive amenities.”
Some of this he attributed to the old Rock Island Railroad that once connected Chicago and Iowa City—increasing the number of Illinois students who came here to study. The opening of I-80 in the sixties strengthened ties because you could now go back and forth in one day. He also added that people in Chicago hold the door open for folk from Iowa—something that doesn’t usually happen in Manhattan.
“Stay in the city.”
“You should stay at the Palmer House,” one friend of Hakes told him. He did.
That wasn’t really what Jesus was getting at, but then again, sometimes we have to be open to different interpretations.
“Stay in the city.”
It’s one of those Bible verses that we seem to take literally around here—and you know that doesn’t happen too often. Over the last 45 years other congregations have moved out of the downtown area. First it was the Presbyterians. Tornado damage led to St. Patrick’s to head east. In recent years Disciples, Unitarians, and our Jewish friends heard the siren call of Coralville.
A few times, we, too, were tempted to move as well. But we have stayed in the city because we understand that is essential to our calling as a congregation. I assure the participants in each new member class that we are here to stay, here for good.
This means that, as it has been said: “We will never be able to offer easy parking.” More importantly, it means that we are one of a very few liberal Christian congregations in the downtown and campus area.
It means that our light and our voice must be seen and heard.
It means that we must continue to announce the good news of God’s love for all people, to show God’s accepting welcome to all.
It means, as well, that we need to meet and know our neighbors.
The increasing number of apartments and condos downtown is an indication that our neighbors are increasing. And in a very real sense, our neighbors—those whom we are called to love—our neighbors are all who work or study or shop or visit in this area.
On a recent warm Friday evening, I spent some time walking around downtown Iowa City to see our neighbors. There were students out in groups and waiting in lines to get into the bars, there were young adults enjoying meals at the sidewalk tables of an abundance of restaurants, there were families on their way to various destinations, there were people whose attire suggested they had been working late, and there were the homeless.
What struck me that night was the number of people by themselves—eating in solitude, going into a movie by themselves, hanging out at the bookstore, a part of no group. Yes, there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Some might have been enjoying a little “me time” after a hectic week. Some might have just left friends or were on their way to a party. Still, on that night all the lonely people were very present.
And I was left to wonder what these, our neighbors, might be telling us about the mission and the priorities of our congregation. We have stayed in the city—where there are students who might want something other than bar life every weekend, where there are students whose preferences and choices can cut them off from others, where there are students who are lonely. We have stayed in the city—where people are finding their way in a demanding and changing world and often finding themselves alienated, lost, alone.
How will we as the remaining downtown liberal Christian congregation respond?
How can we better get to know our neighbors?
How can we better minister to and with our neighbors?
We have an abundance of resources including a building in good repair, a great location, and a congregation ready for new challenges as we consider our priorities and our mission for the years ahead.
Staying in the city requires some humility on our part. The Greek word that is translated as “stay” in these words of Jesus is elsewhere translated as “sit.” “Sit in the city.” What might we learn if we were to sit in the swirl of commerce and music and festivals and building and joy and hunger and poverty and despair that surround us? Sitting in the city—before we act—gives us the opportunity to discern how God is already present here and to gain a sense of what new thing God is already doing among us so that our worship and music and programs of education and action in the community might all address real needs in significant and meaningful ways.
Perhaps we can get a fresh perspective from our Muslim friends.
Maybe you have neighbors or colleagues or friends who fast during the month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan began in early May and ends in early June. Every year adult Muslims who are in good health observe this time by fasting from sunrise to sunset.
In Ramadan time is spent reading scripture and in prayer. It is, as one person put it, “a joyous month of spiritual growth and late night family meals”—a time to remember that, as the Qur’an says about this month, “God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship.” The goal of this fasting, of course, is much more than getting through the day without food. One person says that the fast of Ramadan equips people with a creative sense of hope and an optimistic outlook on life; it gives a sense of closeness to God; it provides a clear mind and a light body.[i]
Our Muslim friends remind us that when we break from our usual lives—to fast or to sit in the city—we are lead toward renewal and new action. We, too, should seek that “creative sense of hope and optimistic outlook” for our ministry and mission in this place.
“Stay in the city,” the risen Christ tells us. And we have.
“Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act that comes from a faith that God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of that work and that creation.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act because in the resurrection we come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. When we do take action, we can trust that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.
This power comes not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. This power rises from God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection, in which we see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith claiming that God continues to do so today.
This is the time for us to discover anew how we might best use that power for the well-being of our neighbors and our city.
In a world in which peace is rejected, in which we are familiar more with doubt and fear than certainty and courage, the risen Christ tells us we’ve got work to do. Beyond our doubts and fears is the work of God begun in Christ. It is left for us to continue it.
We won’t do it alone—we have one another for support.
We won’t do it on our own strength—for the strength of God will be ours.
And we certainly won’t finish it in our own lifetime—but the resurrection is God’s promise that our labor is not in vain.
Our decision to stay in this place so that we might love our neighbors as ourselves involves risk—so we must be, as Jesus suggested, both wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We have good reason to doubt and fear.
But this is the work we have been given in this place in these days.