Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sunday of the Ascension – June 1, 2014
In the Name of God: cosmic creator, ascended Christ, and enabling Spirit. Amen.
Our worship leaflet refers to this day as “Sunday of the Ascension,” for we are celebrating a feast which occurred this past Thursday. It is a major event in the life of Christ and the church. It is also an odd feast. We can relate to almost everything else that happened to Jesus. Like us, he was born into a human family, ate, drank, and slept at night. He both loved and befriended people and got angry and forgave them. The Scripture tells us that he wept and I cannot imagine that he did not laugh. He died, as will we all and, though we don’t know a lot about it, we hope to be rejoined with those we love and with Jesus in the life to come.
But this ascending into heaven part is where we might get lost. If you Google the images for “Ascension” you will find a plethora of both classic art and some interesting contemporary interpretations. You may have seen the Ascension depicted in a stained glass window, a group of bewildered disciples huddled on a hillside. A short distance away Jesus hovers ready to take off like a hot air balloon. Some of these paintings depict only two feet protruding from a cloud which already has swallowed Jesus up.
The first reading this morning describes the event and tells us that Jesus appeared again to his disciples forty days after his Resurrection and was taken up right before their eyes into heaven. The earliest readers of this account really believed that Jesus ascended to a literal heaven, a specific location from whence he would return at the end of time. While we cannot deny the possibility of an ascension into heaven, we miss the point of it all if we focus on the metaphysics of his outer space travel or speculate about the topographical whereabouts of heaven rather than on what this event means for us 21st century sojourners in faith.
Departures are not always fun and sometimes even leave us sad. My guess is that those disciples would have stood there staring into space until either hunger pains set in or nature called—were it not for the two angels who challenged them. “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” In other words, life continues to go on all around you, so pay attention; there is important work to be done!
Christ’s Ascension may, indeed be “other worldly,” and it does not suggest that we stand about and gape at the sky but rather look downward, from one place to another, all over the place to see what God is asking us to do bring healing, peace, justice, and reconciliation to our world. The words of the angels clearly imply that there is work to be done right here in this lifetime, even in this moment.
We sing great music today that talks about “going up” but what the ascension really means for the church is “coming down”—God’s coming down through the power of the Holy Spirit and unleashing that power through the ministry of God’s people.
This quirky feast may stretch our potential for mind expansion and transport our stream of consciousness into the realm of the other worldly and supernatural, yet it does have direct and important implications for us who have been left to care for this entity called church which Jesus left us—both as individuals and as a community. First, is our call to be in relationship with one another as the Body of Christ.
Buddhists tell of an ancient custom among nomadic, itinerant peoples that is designed to prevent wanderers from remaining strangers. The custom developed of getting to know other people through three simple questions: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you on your journey? With few exceptions, we all know someone here today and where they are from. But that third question is probably the most interesting. Where are You? Where are you on your journey? Are you gazing up at the sky like those bewildered disciples or are you on the move and looking for your niche, your place to serve in the world?
The Reverend Bill Tully, former Rector of St. Bart’s in New York City, once said “We are, God and our weak flesh willing, real disciples. But we live in a time removed by many years, years marked by some real changes. We are not playing at the first century church; we are living now in the 21st century church. To be faithful today requires a breadth that wasn’t spelled out by Jesus or by a few who would literally lay down their lives for him. But it’s a breath expressed by his broad and forgiving spirit, and a breadth anticipated in the diverse personalities, foibles and weaknesses even of the twelve in his inner circle.”
And we are on this journey not in isolation and just as individuals, but in the context of community, a community in which the Holy Spirit resides and presides. We have not only an individual but also a social role.
The Reverend Thomas Frank writes of his experience as pastor in St. Louis when on one Sunday morning he arrived to find the streets full of cars, a flatbed truck parked in front of the neighboring synagogue. It dawned o him that this was the weekend he had read about in the local paper when Congregation B’nai Amoona was going to move farther out into the suburbs.
In between his last minute preparations for worship, he watched as a procession got underway. To the sound of the ram’s horn and singing, came the elders of the congregation bearing the ornate Torah scrolls. They took sat on folding chairs arranged on the truck bed. Finally, the truck began to roll toward the corner and onto the western suburbs. Dozens of carloads of members of the synagogue fell in behind. They were leaving the street they had shared with this Methodist congregation for many years.
Thomas Frank writes, “By that time I had only a moment to grab my robe and rush into the chancel to begin our service. I almost couldn’t speak for my grieving this exodus. I asked our congregation to pray for God’s blessing on the journey of the B’nai Amoona folk as they went forth bearing God’s Word in their arms.
“But then I said something like this: meanwhile, we are staying here. Our vocation is to remain in this city at this corner and be a witness here. We have a place to serve right here in this community. And ask God’s blessing on this place as well.”
We are a wonderful mix of people, not unlike the gang Jesus left standing befuddled on the day of his Ascension, with just as diverse an assortment of outlooks, perspectives, beliefs, and levels of faith. Our common thread is our humanity, the reality that we are made in the image of our Creator God, and, because of that gift, our capacity to love one another.
In spite of the idiosyncrasies and human flaws of this local Episcopal Church, we still stick with it. I think maybe because in some unexplainable way we have discovered that there is power among us here that feels suspiciously like God’s Spirit at work. There is power in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, in the ministry of healing and preaching and there is power in the community that gathers to worship here, partake of that sacred meal, and then go into the world renewed and ready to join in God’s work of restoration.
Yes, this oddly important feast of the Ascension is far more about God coming down than about Jesus going up. The Spirit moves through our diverse, distinctive and maybe even peculiar congregations.
Houses of worship sometimes have good reason to move on or end their ministry in a particular location. Individual members of churches have their reasons for coming and leaving as well. Even Jesus departed from the company of his disciples. It is the cycle of life.
Our vocation for now is to remain in this city at this corner and be a witness here. Life continues to go on all around us, so we pay attention aware that there is important work to be done. And as a quick, direct, and honest way to be in relationship with one another, we might adopt that ancient ritual designed to prevent wanderers from remaining strangers. Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you on your journey? It may be the beginning of a very interesting and holy conversation.