The following is a slightly condensed sermon with two stories from my favorite pastor, Dan Macgill. Our gospel reading was about the ascension of Jesus.
Jesus is at the end of his earthly work; his victory is at hand. That is the good news, but he is leaving his disciples in a world that will not be easy for them They will suffer and be persecuted and put to death in his name. That is the bad news. So, what will we, in our lives, choose to focus on – the bad news or the good news?
There are two stories that took place not too long ago in the same town. It was Erie, Pennsylvania. In the first story, a local man of limited mental capacity robbed a bank. The incredible thing was that he had a live bomb attached to his body by a metal collar that someone had locked around his neck. He was carrying a note written by his assailants ordering him to go to four different places after the robbery to get instructions about what to do next to have the bomb defused. He never made it to stop number one. The police intercepted this simple man in a parking lot immediately after he left the bank. He did not try to run from them, but begged them to help him. He told the police he had been forced to rob the bank because the bomb on his neck was on a timer. The bomb squad did not reach the sight quickly enough, and there on main street, the bomb went off and the man blew up. The man had lived in a tiny house alone with his cats. He earned very little money and spent little. He did not have the mental ability to plan a robbery. This bizarre story made headlines all over the country.
But there is another story that also took place in Erie, Pennsylvania. It is a story about a nun, a block full of children, a small corner store, and an old, drug infested neighborhood. The nun lives there in the center of town with her 90-year-old father who refuses to move. It is his home and it is where he raised his children. When the nun returned to this neighborhood, she immediately went to meet the neighbors. She organized a set of after-school games. She gave reading classes on the front steps of her house. Before long, they all took on community projects such as picking up cans, filling garbage bags with trash, and planting flowers along the curbs. They swept the streets and planted grass. And for this work, they got coupons that the local grocery store accepted for food. They even painted houses. Soon, the neighborhood, and it’s very nature, changed.
The nun wanted to go block by block and continue this project, but that required a lot of money. The local paper gave the story good coverage, but the national press ignored it. (I wonder why.) The bank story is about the evil, violent murder of a simple man. More than that, it is about the deterioration of the US as a human community. The other story is about the rejuvenation of an old neighborhood by young children living in the evil of its neglect. But it is also about the possibility of rebirth in American life.
So, what is the gospel telling us about ourselves, today? Is it telling us more than we really want to know? Are we any closer to carrying out Jesus’ mission that he left us in charge of? Has it become too easy simply to allow ourselves to be squeezed into the world’s mold?
Angelique Arnold wrote once that perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.