Witness – May 13, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ascension Sunday
May 13, 2018

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13John 17:6-19Psalm 1


Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

The 2009 Broadway musical Next to Normal centers around a middle-aged woman named Diana. As Diana struggles with bipolar disorder, she neglects her sixteen-year-old daughter, Natalie, but showers Gabe, her nearly eighteen year-old son, with attention. Natalie, the daughter, describes this dynamic in a song entitled “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” According to Natalie, Diana sees Gabe as “everything a kid oughta be,” but Diana has trouble seeing Natalie at all. “Superboy and the invisible girl,” Natalie sings, “son of steel and daughter of air. He’s a hero, a lover, a prince—she’s not there.”

Ironically, Gabe is the one who is not there, at least physically. About a quarter of the way into the musical, we learn that Gabe actually died as an infant at the age of eight months, before Natalie was born. The Gabe we see played by an actor on the stage is Diana’s fantastical construction of the boy Gabe would have grown up to be; Gabe is not real, except in Diana’s mind. Overwhelmed by her loss, even all these years later, Diana has proved incapable of letting Gabe go. Instead, she attaches herself to the memory of him, which has grown older alongside of her, fixating herself on a figment of her imagination and all the while ignoring the child of hers who lives still—right in front of her, in flesh and blood.

When the disciples stand looking up toward heaven, they too are reacting to loss by clinging to the past. Jesus of Nazareth—an inspiring teacher and a magnetic personality, their leader and their friend—spectacularly defeated death by coming back to life, but, after only being re-united with the disciples for forty days, Jesus had just been taken from them, yanked by a cloud into heaven, leaving them stunned, with no idea of what they should do next. With all our Easter proclamations of Jesus being alive again, we tend to forget—and some of us may not even have known in the first place—that, forty days after his resurrection, Jesus abandons us once more. “Ascension Day,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is the day the present Lord became absent, which may be why it is the most forgotten feast day of the church year. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Who wants to mark the day that Jesus went out of this world, never to be seen again?”

Staring up at heaven is the disciples’ way of trying to stop the clock, of wishing that what had once been true would be true forever. In looking up toward heaven, in focusing on bygone glory, the disciples miss what is all around them right now—namely, each other, a community ready to love and be loved in the way that Jesus loved us. “If they wanted to see [Jesus] again,” Brown Taylor explains, “it was no use looking up. Better they should look around instead, at each other, at the world, at the ordinary people in their ordinary lives, because that was where they were most likely to find him.” Brown Taylor goes on to apply the lesson the disciples were taught that day to us, encouraging us to turn and embrace one another just as the disciples eventually learned to turn and embrace the divine in the faces of their friends. “Do you miss [Jesus] sometimes?” she asks. “Do you long for assurance that you have not been left behind? Then why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Look around you, look around.”

It is natural for us to lionize the people who have made an impact on the world or in our lives. Extraordinary contributions deserve extraordinary recognition. But in seeking to honor those who have come before us, we can linger too long on who they were and what they accomplished, and thus prevent ourselves from seeing everything that is happening all around us. Think about how easy it is for churches to become museum pieces—intricately adorned, historically landmarked mausoleums paying tribute to a fossilized, stained-glass Jesus—and how difficult it is for churches to become living, breathing communities of people who are actively committed to seeing Jesus at work around them and doing what Jesus said we should do.

Our Race and Social Justice group is currently reading a book by Jeanne Theoharis about how, in remembering the Civil Rights Movement, we sanitize and distort it, making it safer—more palatable and less threatening. Theoharis finds this phenomenon to be particularly present in popular perceptions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. “I continue to be astonished by the incessant, absurd, and chilling misuses of Parks and King,” she writes. “These two freedom fighters have been turned into Thanksgiving parade balloons—floating above us larger than life; unthreatening, happy patriots. Asking little of us, they bob along proud of our progress. King and Parks are embraced yet simultaneously stripped of their political substance and courageous steadfastness (and what their legacies demand of us today). These elaborate spectacles of honor and tribute function to distract us from the responsibility of harnessing such resolve in ourselves and from reckoning with what Parks’s and King’s legacies reveal about the nation and its current policies and direction.”

Until beginning Theoharis’ book, I hadn’t been aware of the magnificent poem she quotes in her introduction, Carl Wendell Hines Jr.’s “A Dead Man’s Dream”:

Now that he is safely dead, [the poem reads] Let us Praise him,
Build monuments to his glory,
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images 
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments 
Than to build a better world.

As Theoharis and Hines so boldly demonstrate, our monuments to the great figures of our past, however well-intentioned, can shield us from comprehending the total significance of what they achieved in their lives and the impact that their achievements and their struggles can have on us. Looking up toward heaven, then, is both a failure to move on from the past and a failure to be changed by it. When our faith in Jesus crystallizes into something pristine and static, something only to marvel at and depend upon, we not only trap ourselves in a nostalgic fantasy that is divorced from reality; we also miss out on a tremendous opportunity for our growth and development.

The past is something to be gnawed over and wrestled with; it deserves neither to be enshrined for perpetuity nor to be forgotten altogether. In Next to Normal, Diana begins to experience freedom from her past when she utters the full truth of what happened aloud for the first time. In the Ascension story, Jesus urges his disciples to be witnesses to all that they have experienced and observed. We couldn’t escape the past even if we wanted to, and naming the past helps us gain control over it and recognize the many ways in which it affects us.

The task of witnessing that Jesus originally gave his disciples two millennia ago has been capably assumed by a plethora of priests and other leaders of the Church, who over the last twenty centuries have continued to re-tell and re-interpret the story of Jesus’ life and resurrection as the world has changed around them. Today we celebrate the work of one of those witnesses, the Reverend Holley Slauson, who was ordained forty years ago this week and has been with St. Paul’s for a total of twenty years, for half of his time as a priest. You who know Holley know his compassionate care, his piercing glance, his infectious smile and laugh. You know his faithfulness and dedication to this community. We thank God for Holley’s love and Holley’s steadfastness, for how he has helped us to remember and follow Jesus in an ever-changing world. Yet we also know that witnessing is not the work of a priest alone; it is up to all of us to keep the story of Jesus alive and relevant in modern times. Today, heartened by Holley’s example, we commit anew to being witnesses ourselves.

What does it mean to witness, especially to a story as ancient and powerful as Jesus’? How do we do it effectively? Wise witnessing to the past occasionally requires leaving behind the familiar for a different context that may shed new light on an old story. I know that Holley and Nicholas, who celebrated his fortieth ordination anniversary just a few months ago, have seen a fair bit of change over the course of their forty years of ministry. Change, though it can be controversial and even painful at the time, is often necessary. Diana, in Next to Normal, realizes that, in order to finally come to terms with the death of her son, she needs to leave the home in which his memory has haunted her. The disciples eventually stop looking up toward heaven and go, as Jesus directed, to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to “all the nations,” to the “ends of the earth.” Today Jesus is calling you, like them, to respect and witness to the memory of what is past, but also to travel with that memory to the foreign and the exotic, to embrace the unfamiliar, to be transformed by difference, to go someplace new.

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