May 16, 2021
Several weeks ago when I went to write “reflection” on my calendar, I was intrigued that it overlapped with the beginning of “Shavuot,” clearly a Jewish observance but not a word I knew. And May16th came right after the Muslim`Idul Fitr. So here was the last Sunday of the seven weeks of Easter – Ascension Sunday, the Sunday that falls between Christ’s rise in glory to the heavens and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. What a week. What a happy confluence.
No surprise about Ascension Sunday and Shavuot once I found out that that was Pentecost. That `Idul Fitr is now, however, is by chance since in the Islamic lunar calendar dates move backward 10 or 12 days each year.
A word about these Muslim and Jewish festivals. `Idul Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, particularly hard when, as now, the days are long since the pious abstain, even from water, from dawn to dusk. You can imagine how joyously believers greet the appearance of the new moon. There are gifts, and feasting and prayer so well attended that in many cities there are outdoor fields to accommodate the numbers. Why Ramazan? It is the month that commemorates the revelation of God’s infallible and unchanging word in the Qur’an, God’s presence, in the world, with one of the last nights of the month a night of particular blessing, perhaps a time when the angels inscribe each person’s fate for the year to come. The pious stay awake all night. There is an ethical dimension to the fast, making palpable a person’s dependence on God’s gifts and grace, and bringing home the everyday deprivation of the poor.
Shavuot, too, celebrates God’s word, again, God’s presence, in the world, in this case with the receipt of the Torah, and, above all, the gift of the ten commandments to Moses. Tonight there will be people keeping a night-long vigil, now to study the Torah. Tomorrow the faithful gather for prayer and there is the joy of sharing special food. Torah and Qur’an alike are symbols of mutual love and bond between God and his people. In ancient Israel, Shavuot was one of the three great pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which brings us to where we’ll be next Sunday at this time.
That brings us back to our festival, the Easter resurrection that we’ve been celebrating, thinking about, reflecting on all these past weeks. Easter is not, of course, the revelation of any text, but it converges with those revelations in affirming God’s presence in the midst of human life and guiding us to its meaning. Easter shows us the reality of God’s presence in the Incarnation, and it is the Ascension that confirms at once Christ’s glory and his presence in the world unbound by bodily form. At Easter, the disciples looked for Jesus in the wrong place: he wasn’t in the tomb. He was easy to mistake, taken for a stranger, a gardener. In the Ascension, the disciples were off course again:
“… suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” They were again looking in the wrong place.
During the 40 days of Eastertide, Jesus appeared, his “tour of faith” as Chantip called it, when the disciples tried to explain to a seeming stranger what had happened in Jerusalem and broke bread with him; he appeared when they were gathered in his name and he was suddenly in their midst; he was there when they were hungry on the beach and shared a meal of fish. And the Jesus after the Ascension is present in the same way – easy to miss – he may be mistaken for a stranger – but then his presence becomes real in talk and shared bread and times of loving communication.
Love has been the theme of our lessons these recent weeks, when we have heard Jesus’s final words to his disciples, that include the organic, living image of the vine, of ourselves as branches, corporal and incorporated into the ground of our being. “Abide in me, abide in my love…love one another as I have loved you,” and, so incorporated, bear fruit. In today’s lesson, we hear Jesus’ words of protection to his Father for his disciples – “Guard them,” “protect them,” “let them be one.” This is the prayer that we hear Paul praying over and over for the new followers. These are the prayers any loving parent would pray for their children — guard them, protect them, let them get along with each other, love one another. “Love” has been the joyous word of this season, in these gospel readings and over and over again in John’s first epistle.
There is love in many stories of second chances. I think Thomas doubted that Jesus came back not because he was dubious about resurrection – Pharisees, lots of people at the time I think believed that –I think he doubted that Jesus came back to them. Why to them when they had denied him, had run away? Peter often stumbled — putting his foot in it – or putting his foot in and sinking – but most of all denying Jesus at the end. But, as Jim Stickney chorused on Easter Day, “Christ died not to make us good but to make us alive.” And what life Peter found. In the stories of Acts we’ve been hearing he is the fearless orator, the healer, the evangelist inside the jail, the branch rooted in love. And in our story today, the body of the disciples, rent by the tragedy of Judas, now has its second chance, its body repaired, with God’s grace — and Mathias joins their number.
Our reflections in Eastertide have pondered what that love means, how to realize it, and we have circled around the differences, knowing that what each of us is capable of varies. We have contemplated evangelism in many forms; chances to help a neighbor, from garbage pails to sandwiches; acting with love even if the feeling has not yet caught up with the act. That love comes as it did when Jesus walked the earth. Sharing bread. Gathering in love. Pondering the scriptures. This last can be hard. But we discuss them and do our best. It was conversation that made Jesus real on the road to Emmaus; and conversation that made him real between Philip and the Ethiopian. The eunuch, and one can be sure Philip, too, went on their way rejoicing.
And so convergence in all these three great traditions, of the conviction of Divine presence in the world. In emphasizing the resonance in all three, it’s important to skirt the implication that they are all the same or at the other extreme to make one’s own better than the others. But they do share, not only audacious notion of the intersection of the divine, the transcendent, with the human. And from that confidence in God’s love, they embrace a vision of generosity, justice, and compassion — love – called for in human relations. Love is there in the joyous encounters and gifts of the feasts. It is there in the Muslim tradition of “fitrana,” charitable gifts that are traditional on Idu’l Fitr.
And they are there in the scripture to be pondered during Shavuot in the story appointed for this day, none other than the book of Ruth. (Talk about convergence. The Bible reading group led by Larry – by chance? — has just read the book of Ruth out loud). I’ll close with reading a few lines from a rabbi’s recent sermon for Shavu’ot with lessons on love for us all.i In her words:
“Some of the deepest truth of Shavuot lie in the unabashedly human tale we read on this sacred holiday….The classical midrash on the Book of Ruth tells us that the entire point of the book is to teach gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness and generosity.” The story in brief: a famine forces a family into exile, all the men of the family die, Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, are left alone, and Ruth defies convention to stay with Naomi, to protect and serve her. In their vulnerable state, Naomi and Ruth, a foreigner, return to Naomi’s home and find kindness and generosity. Notably from an older, remote kinsman, Boaz, who lives up to his society’s standard of generosity to allow gleaning, and then, in a further exercise of compassion, offers Ruth the best that the society can provide a woman in that time, the protection of marriage.The story is a model of lovingkindness and generosity for peoples who have received just that from God. It is a call to the love we can strive to demonstrate individually in daily life. It is also a call, the rabbi reminds us, as best we can, to be clear-eyed and active about the standards and practices of the societies we live in and the many forms of injustice in which we are complicit. In this year of calendrical convergence, let us celebrate and seek the Ascended Christ who abides with us in the world.
Rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, “Celebrating the Torah of Economic Justice and Compassion,” Shavuot 5775, at https://ajws-americanjewishwo.netdna-ssl.com/wp- content/uploads/2015/05/cc_shavuot_5775.pdf Accessed 5/15/21.