Archives For Ascension

…in which we learn to pray.

Here’s my sermon from this Sunday for the local high school’s baccalaureate service, using Mark’s text of the rich (young) man. Props to my friend Scott Jones for linking the themes of Ascension and Melissa Febos‘ memoir Abandon Me.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all here because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.

It’s no surprise that some of you are here today listening to me against your will, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me.

It occurs to me, though, that some of you might be here not against your will but by accident.

For instance, if any of you studied Latin during your West Po time, then you know that the root word in baccalaureate is Bacchus, the name for the Roman god of drunken revelry and sexual debauchery.

Even so, if any of you came here today expecting a bacchanalia instead of a baccalaureate, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait 9 months for Fraternity Rush.

Seriously, as one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you to Aldersgate Church, and I want to thank you for the invitation to speak. As a Methodist preacher, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 75 years of age.

Just kidding.

But not really.

Actually, I shouldn’t lead with an age joke.

With each passing day I’m increasingly aware that even though when I look in the mirror I still see someone about your age, when you look at me you see someone as old, dull and passionless as your parents.

Just think-

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA. That’s The University to all you who might be going to Tech.

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA.

Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, the White House was mired in scandal because of a President who might also a sexual predator. And back then the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet were incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, a new release of Star Wars had broken all the box office records.

It was a completely different world- a world you couldn’t possibly recognize.

This is my 5th or 6th baccalaureate sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure how I keep getting invited to deliver these considering the fact that I’m philosophically opposed to them.

For one thing, I’m opposed to baccalaureates because you don’t need an inspirational sermon at your graduation- YOU’RE GRADUATING! That’s exciting enough; you don’t need anyone like me adding words to it. You’re done.

You’ve been in school all day long for almost your entire life, but now you’ve made it. You’re finished. No more SOL’s, AP’s, GPA’s, SAT’s, PSAT’s. It’s all over. You’re graduating.

You no longer have to pretend you actually read MacBeth. The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will be the day your son or daughter asks you for help with their math. And you won’t be able to.

But who cares? Because you’re done. You’re graduating. From this point forward, if you can avoid a major felony you can avoid group showers for the rest of your life. You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.

But really, the main reason why I’m at philosophic odds with baccalaureate preaching is because I can’t remember a single word of the sermon from my own baccalaureate. I remember the school choir sang.

I remember a classmate read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go– ironically the person who read that still lives with his parents in the same neighborhood we grew up in.

And, I remember an aging, white-haired minister named Dennis Perry preaching, but I don’t recall a single word of what he said.

The only baccalaureate sermon I can remember, in fact, is the baccalaureate sermon I preached for West Po 10 years ago. I remember it because I made the mistake of choosing this scripture passage as my text. This one from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:

This rich young man- he’s only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels.

He’s the only youth anywhere in the Gospels. So preaching on this scripture text in such a well-heeled zip code was more than me just being confrontational. I wasn’t feeling contrary just because the program that day called me an “inspirational speaker.”

I genuinely thought it was an appropriate Gospel given my audience. He’s the Gospel’s only young person.

To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, over-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in my previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.

I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village, in Venezuela of all places.

——————————

 At first, I thought that baccalaureate sermon went alright. I got a few laughs.

I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the Fellowship Hall for the reception.

All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.

‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.

‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. 

     You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’ 

He stormed off with his family in tow.

Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.

He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’ 

And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.

I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’ 

I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.

I almost escaped the Fellowship Hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.

He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’ 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

     ‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’ 

And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’ 

I saw the vein in his forehead start to throb so I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

     ‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ 

      Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

     ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’ 

They watch the rich young man walk away.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’ 

Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.

And yet we call this story Gospel, good news, because, well, nothing is impossible with a Living God.

I left that Dad with the throbbing vein in his forehead, and I walked out to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt (this was years before hipster side-parts and Vineyard Vines) said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible passage yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look kid, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.

‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’ 

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that of all the Gospel stories the only story where it says Jesus loved someone is a story where a young person like me failed.’

     ‘Uh, come again?’ 

     ‘That’s the only story where it says Jesus loved someone’ he said. 

     ‘Uh, it is?’ 

     ’It sure is’ he said.

     ‘You know your Bible, kid. You must be a Baptist.’

He didn’t nod.

‘Sure, Jesus loves everybody, but that’s the only story where it says Jesus loves an individual and the individual he loves is a young person like me who failed. 

    ‘Huh,’ I said, thinking that would’ve made a better sermon than the one I’d just preached. 

     ‘Obviously that’s why you chose the passage, right Reverend? You wanted us not to be afraid of failing because God’s love for us doesn’t fail.’  

    ‘Oh, umm, right, yeah of course that’s why I chose it. You don’t think I chose it just because I was PO’d that they called me an inspirational speaker did you?’ 

He laughed and was about to get in his car when I said:

Hey, kid, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry tight-sphinctered looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

I don’t remember a single word of what was said at my own baccalaureate.

But maybe-

Maybe you will remember what a student just like you said at another baccalaureate where no one remembered what I said.

Not only is it not the typical cliched baccalaureate bullshit, it also happens to be true:

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Because you will, you know.

Fail.

In many myriad ways.

And sometimes in mighty ways.

You’ve grown up in a culture in which you’ve been exposed to an average of 4,000 advertisements a day- a day!

My 5th grade son did the math for me: that comes out to 26,280,000 advertisements during your lifetime.

26 million times our culture has tried to convert you, indoctrinate you, condition you to believe the lie that if- and only if- you just achieve the right lifestyle, find the perfect spouse and the coolest job, earn the biggest salary, look a certain way, drive this kind of car, live in that sort of house then- only then- will your life be a success.

Only then will you be happy.

That’s a lot of pressure.

Not to mention- let’s be honest parents, I’m one too- you all are the products of helicopter parents and tiger moms.

You’ve been told your whole life that you’re gifted, you’re exceptional, you’re above average. The world is your oyster.

Your whole young life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you set your mind on, that your life and your future and your fulfillment is yours to sieze. Carpe Diem!

But here’s what they never tell you in graduation speeches: when we tell you your future is yours for you to choose, it can feel like it’s all on you.

To make the right choice. And to succeed at it after you’ve made your choice.

That’s an enormous amount of pressure. On you.

And it can feel like the stakes couldn’t be higher because it’s your life and your future we’re talking about.

Your whole education, all your grades and testing and extra-curriculars, all your parents helicoptering over you and tigering for you, all of it has been invested in you; so that, now you can choose the life you want.

That’s a scary amount of pressure on you.

So much so, it can leave you afraid to fail.

Or, rather, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you do fail.

Even worse, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you end up with a life other than the one you or your parents anticipated.

Or when you do get that life everyone wanted for you and it’s not what you’d hoped it would be- it can leave you feeling like you failed somewhere along the way.

I think that’s why in 12 years here at Aldersgate I’ve known a whole lot of youth who’ve graduated from West Potomac only to find themselves lost and confused, depressed, and terrifically lonely.

You’re not going to remember what I said in your baccalaureate, but maybe you’ll remember what that other graduate said after my other baccalaureate sermon: Don’t be afraid to fail.

     Don’t be afraid to fail because the most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with your performance or your career or your family or your GPA or your Major or your mate or anything that’s brought you today to this celebration.

The young man said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth and God said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

When the youth heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

And God, looking at him, loved him

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has even less to do with what you do.

With your life.

So don’t be afraid to fail because God’s love for you…no.

————————

Last week, when I wrote this sermon for you, the Church celebrated a holy day called Ascension, a festival day that remembers the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

I realize you might not all be Christian. Just let the image do its work.

What’s important about Ascension isn’t just that Jesus goes up.

What’s important about Ascension is that when Jesus goes up into God, he takes us with him. He takes our humanity- every bit of every one of us- into divinity.

Your humanity has been taken in to divinity. Your life, your past and your present and your future; all of it, every bit of every last one of you- resides now in God; so that, no matter what you do or who you become, the ways you succeed or how often you don’t, your story is forever, eternally so, bound up with God.

He’s taken your story up into the story and, trust me I bury a lot of successful people, in the end, that’s the only story that will matter about you.

So don’t be afraid of failing because no matter how your story goes your story will end in the very same place.

I interviewed a dominatrix for my podcast recently.

I mention that she’s a dominatrix only so you realize that being a minister is more interesting than it sounds- even when everyone in your family wanted you to be a lawyer and thought you’d failed when you chose differently.

Anyways, this dominatrix she’s written a couple of memoirs and in one of them she puts the point better than me or that graduate in the church parking lot 10 years ago:

The story of Jonah seems a parable of what I have often suspected, that life is a great “choose your own adventure story.”

Every choice leads the hero to the same prince, the same cliff.  Every love [every choice, every joy and success, every obstacle, every failure] is a sea monster in whose belly, like Jonah, we learn to pray.

Life is a great “choose your own adventure story. There are alternative routes, but there is only one ending.

You have only one ending to the adventure called you.

It ends with the God who looked upon a youth’s failure yet loved him still.

So my word for you today is the most common refrain in scripture of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

My word for you today is this: Do not be afraid. 

Memorial Day Weekend is approaching.

So is the Holy Day Christians call ‘Ascension’ when Jesus is given by the Father dominion over the earth.

Memorial Day, though it’s not a Christian holy day and though we won’t change out the parament colors to observe it, it’s a tricky time for preachers of the Gospel. It’s tricky not because the valor of the fallen lacks honor but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, is a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story. You don’t need sociological surveys on the Nones to give you a picture of religion in America; the fact is (and maybe always has been) many of us are more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the eucharistic liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us. And, especially, our children.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Nats home opener with my boys. The entire field was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Silence was observed. Colors were processed in with priestly soberness. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung. There was even organ music. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes. If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up would’ve been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of worship service, a liturgy, that was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular narrative. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if/when called upon.

(My friend tells me this ‘liturgy’ is even thicker at NASCAR races, which I take to be ironic since only Southern Baptists go to NASCAR and they’re all on record as loathing liturgy. But maybe it’s just the Christian liturgy they’re against.)

I’m not suggesting (as some might do) that there’s anything wrong with any of the above. I’m instead suggesting that Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it a temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story. Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel from offering God a qualified obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then why are we so cavalier about God and Country?

The Christian ‘We’ can include but never necessarily so the American ‘We.’ God has called not our nation but first Israel and now with it the Church to be a light to the nations. The Church, not our nation not any nation, is the means by which God has elected to finish his New Creation. As a leader of the Church, I think it’s a dumb strategy too, more so even than you, but as a preacher in the Church I’m stuck with the message I’ve been given to relay.

Christians, after all, are not, from the vantage of the fullness of time, invested in democracy. We’re not republicans or democrats. We’re theocrats. We live in America, yes, but we belong to a Kingdom. We may vote for a president (or we may not, Christians are free of any ‘duty’ to vote), but by our baptism we pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace. And that peace, we believe, is wrought not by the sword/gun/battleship/drone but was wrought by the cross.

If you doubt the danger I’ve posed actually exists, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it- that’s what the ‘liturgy’ of the baseball game intends. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. Fine.

Except…people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ The only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones. It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ And its just such nonsense that makes one rightly wonder if the Church is really the entity the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as my faith is relegated to the private/personal then the State will always be the beneficiary of any such separation.

The Church is called to reframe everything in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Lord’ of course isn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It’s a title: King.

And so on a day like Memorial Day that call upon us doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of the fallen or beat our breasts and pretend that America is anything but a unique nation among nations (because no matter what the Huffington Post says, it is).

It instead means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on America’s calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death delivered up by the best and brightest of the Church, and the State, and the Military, for the ungodly.

‘Ungodly’ happens to be a border-breaking (Don’t tell The Donald), multinational, trans-historical catch-all category of humanity.

Thank God.

On Memorial Day Weekend preachers of the Gospel remind adherents of the Gospel that Jesus made is the Ultimate Sacrifice, that he is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including the sacrifice of war), and that Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

We preach the Gospel and, I think, we search for ways to make that story register as deeply as the story I saw felt in section 136 at Nationals Park.

At Ascension the creed shifts from the perfect tense to the present. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. As in this very moment. A statement intended not as referring to Jesus’ location but his vocation; that is, he’s been given dominion by the Father over the Earth as its rightful Lord and King. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas says, Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.

Ascension Sunday falls on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. Taylor & Jason discuss how the Ascension and Memorial Day can’t be juxtaposed to one another. This week’s lections include: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47 or Psalm 93, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Luke 24:44-53

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

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It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

23. What Do We Mean By Professing that Jesus Ascended into Heaven?

We mean that Jesus is exactly what Israel anticipated, what their prophets promised, what the magi sought and Herod feared, what the Palm Sunday Passover pilgrims hailed him as, and what Pilate’s sign above his wounded head says he is: King.

We mean that he ascends into Heaven not to be King of Heaven but from Heaven- from the righthand of the Father- rule the Earth with all dominion and authority.

In professing that Jesus ascended into heaven, we mean that if Jesus did nothing more than suffer on the cross and rise from the dead then our faith is futile, for then even Jesus’ own mother was wrong about him in the song she sang to him and about him in utero, Mary’s song and all the carols that came after her greeted his birth not as the advent of one who suffer’s death in our place or secures our life after death but as the advent of the long longed-for King.

We mean as well that the incarnation is incomplete apart from Jesus’ return to God.

In professing that Jesus ascended into Heaven, we recognize that this was the impetus behind the incarnation all along: in Jesus the eternal God takes on our humanity in order to take our transitory humanity back into the timeless life of God. Or, as the first Christians put it, God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is. So confessing, we concede that apart from Christ’s ascension  we have no ground on which to hope that humans, characterized by becoming, will ever one day enter into Being.

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  

– John 19.19

24. What Does the Ascension Mean for Believers Today?

Obedience.

The ascension names the crowning of Jesus Christ as King.

And a King requires not your opinion but your obedience. A King asks not to be invited in to your heart; a King demands your objective loyalty, your pledge to him over all other allegiances.

Therefore, the ascension means we pledge to welcome strangers and aliens, to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who trespass against us, to show mercy to those who curse us and to show compassion to the poor. We do it so because Jesus commanded us, and the ascension reminds us that Jesus is not just our teacher, savior, or guide. He’s our Lord and King. To him, God has given all authority and dominion over the Earth.

Because of the ascension, Jesus’ teachings can never now be suggestions for a better way to live nor can they can be construed as strategies to make the world a better place.

Because of the ascension, Jesus’ teachings are, simply, the commands of a King upon his subjects.

Inconveniently, this means that, in Jesus, God has already revealed more of God’s will for our lives than we’re willing to do.

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.

– Revelation 4.11

Ascension

…Until Jesus Ascends to the Father

Here’s my Mother’s Day Ascension Day sermon from this weekend. I used God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3 and the Ascension story in Acts 1 as texts. You an listen to the sermon below. Or, you can download it in the iTunes store here.

     Show of hands-

How many of you made sure to call your mothers this morning to wish them a Happy Ascension Day?

Or maybe you’ll go out to lunch after church to celebrate Ascension Day, this ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too?

Don’t feel guilty.

What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King and given him dominion over all the nations of the Earth is now just Sunday. Or, thanks to Hallmark, Mother’s Day.

Ascension is now largely ignored. It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job. What about world hunger and war? What about Cancer and Verizon Wireless? What about the fact that the music world no longer has Prince in it but still is stuck with Huey Lewis and the News?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus. Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it. Just look at the picture Luke draws for you.

The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong: Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink, Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away. Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we trade Ascension Day for Mother’s Day. It’s more fantastical than a Norman Rockwell family.

Ascension is the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously. To take belief in God seriously.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples.

But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky? Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

Those disciples, and the ones that came after them, the ones who wrote the creeds and compiled the canon- they believed God was ‘up there.’ They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. Not only that- They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.

And it gets even more embarrassing- They believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, seriously the ‘firmament,’ a sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

It’s laughable.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth. Beyond the clouds and the firmament. Up there. In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there.

     And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us? We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. Ascension calls BS on our unspoken secret- we know that that God doesn’t exist. And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s the fastest growing faith in America.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension. It reminds us that we live in a different age. But we didn’t get here overnight. It’s been a long time coming.

In the survey we sent out this week about the video screens, a lot of you said in the comments section that you’re so smart you don’t need images or visual aids to dumb down the sermons. Think so, huh?

We’ll see if you can keep up:

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, gave birth to the modern world in which we all live. Descartes was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 = 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation.

Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was himself, his own interior life.

I think; therefore, I exist, Descartes concluded.

After Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God. And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too. From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

To our senses. To our experience.

But, the problem with thinking that is that…the universe is expanding. Changing. In transition.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. They’re changing. They’re in transition. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly 66 thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over 1 thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding. They’re moving and changing and in transition.

The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding. And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others). We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed. Just think about that…right now, you’re breathing in the dead skin of the people from the _____ worship service.

We’re in transition. Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing. Even bodies we bury in the ground keep changing; when God raises them from the dead, they will not be the same collection of atoms they were when they were buried.

We know that.

Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Nothing is unchanging. Nothing is not in transition. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing. But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

 If everything is constantly changing, 

if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head and the skin that we shed, 

then how can we be the measure of all things? 

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how- How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

And just think about that word ‘being.’ We call ourselves ‘human beings.’ But that’s not right. The word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it, like say a mother.

A being is someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change.

Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant. We’re not changeless. We’re not necessary or permanent.

We’re not beings.

More and more, modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there. But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist. As human beings, we don’t exist.

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

For that matter, we can take a celebrity and make them a presumptive Presidential nominee. Even more impressive, we’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

We can do a lot of things but we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…they don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming.

Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

 

Human beings- don’t exist.

Only human becomings exist.

Listen up-

‘God’ is the name we give to Being.

‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ In other words, I am Existence itself. Being.

As Dennis first taught me when I was a confirmand: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else. Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God.

You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is Being itself can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

I bet the reason they’re staring up at heaven is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, hair-losing, skin-shedding Jesus, a human becoming, like you or me, could enter Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being? How can something that is constantly changing enter into what never changes?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel.

The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming.

The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our transitory humanity into the timeless life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

Or, as the first Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

I know what you’re thinking: I wish we had the video screens back.

Being and becoming- you’re thinking:

Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does.

It does. Here’s what I mean:

Not long before I got sick last year, I got called to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager from Aldersgate who’d tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

The tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last year, when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

The tragedy is that when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

The gospel good news that you’re more than just a constantly changing creature.

You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds.

You’re more than what your ex thinks of you.

You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you.

You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time.

You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone. You’re more than something that’s losing skin until you lose your life. You’re more than dust until you return to the dust.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the very Being of God. And that means we can handle whatever changes that come to us in life because we live and move and have our being in the Being of God who never changes.

“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

But of course they would.

They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’

God is the name we give to Being itself.

God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

God, by definition, has to exist. God is the most obvious thing of all.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes.

Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father.

Ascension     Sunday is Ascension Day, the ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too

To profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

The words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

     In other words, baptism was your pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

 

A little history lesson:

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus, as Brian Zahnd likes to say, was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

But for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

And for Paul everything God had heretofore revealed to his People telegraphs the way of Christ.

All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’

    The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

It’s about following after Jesus.

The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, if he is now the ascendant Lord of all the nations, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Bowing to this King should make us a lot more dysfunctional in our world than we otherwise would have been.

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’ Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

The beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. Despite what Joel Osteen promises, we’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

On the other hand, whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe, the King of Heaven and Earth. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

  • Props to Hedy Collver for the image

Looking at Ascension

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

This is from my friend Janet Laisch:

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This Thursday is Ascension Day– a feast day– to celebrate the Ascension of Christ and a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century.  
In Christ, God’s fullness has been revealed.  His sacred image forever a part of our world. The Transfiguration, The Entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension of Christ are three moments of special, very public recognition of the divine nature of Christ and for this reason they were introduced into the repertoire of Christian art at the height of the Arian crisis.  Arius, a priest in Alexandria, posed the problem.  Arius  questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth.
The Council of Nicaea was not convoked to declare Christ emperor but to declare him God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” The new focus of Christian art in the fourth century aimed at advertising this very belief—that God the Son is eternal and divine– and so an abundance of Ascension icons and grand apse mosaics resulted. 
My very favorite example is a late medieval fresco which is part of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel cycle in Padua, Italy—near Venice– dating from 1305 (see below). 
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To me, entering the Scrovegni Chapel is a kind of “heaven on earth” experience–every surface is covered in rich fresco paint. Standing inside the building, you are wrapped in the Biblical story. Giotto’s painting captures the Ascension of our Lord as told in Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24: 50-53; Acts: 1:9-11; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8. In this single painting, Giotto captured multiple moments of the Gospel simultaneously.  
Giotto’s image reveals the marriage of heaven and earth. We see in the upper half of the fresco, Christ surrounded by a gold mandorla and standing on a cloud, disappearing from human view. Christ’s outstretched fingers are outside the picture plane–outside of our human view– though we know these fingers still exist even though we cannot see them. The cloud is not Giotto’s invention but from scripture–scripture of this very event and from many Old Testament accounts including Exodus where the cloud symbolizes God.  
The cloud, then, realizes God’s presence at this event. Jesus’ ascension into the cloud, according to Benedict, does not mean that Christ was transferred to some “remote region of the cosmos,” but rather that He entered “into the mystery of God.”  We are told through the Bible that we too will at Christ’s Second Coming enter into this cloud and become one with the mystery of God. The mandorla or almond shaped space in Christian art represents the uncreated light of Christ, reminding us that Christ like the Father and the Spirit are as John states, existing before the creation of the world. Christ is eternal. 
Rather than set up a dichotomy between heaven and earth, Giotto painted the blue background to marry the upper and lower halves of the picture and multiple points and spaces in time. We see simultaneously the realm of “appearance” and the realm of “true reality”; we see simultaneously the fleeting earth and the permanent heaven.  As onlookers, we watch as Christ disappears from human’s ability to view Him. 
We see simultaneously as the angels inform the disciples and Mary to stop looking for Christ and begin the work they have been trained to do and Christ standing on the cloud of God.  Giotto depicts eleven disciples and Mary each kneeling in reference to our Lord. Each person is ordained with a halo reminding us that because Christ came down to earth, he taught us how to be fully human and also how to be fully divine.  The halos denote not their status as  the one true God but as part of His divinity in future time. 
Giotto’s art reminds us of the importance of our experiences here on Earth because unlike earlier artists he conveys what it means to be fully human.  Human emotion and individuality are important features of Giotto’s work that differ from earlier Medieval artists. Giotto first used chiaroscuro or modeling of light and dark to depict the disciples and Mary as  three dimensional human figures. Breaking from tradition, Giotto strives to convey a sense of space by layering the figures one in front of the other. Kneeling in prayer, they are grounded rather than floating so there is a sense of earth’s gravitational pull. 
Long considered the father of Renaissance art, he painted simplified stage space: brown rocks connote earth. Giotto included only the needed details and nothing more.  Christ’s Ascension and the people who will become the Church at Pentecost are the subject—other details are not needed or included. His interest is to paint a reality so that we can learn and identify with the image depicting a sacred event.
The earth is where these early Christians kneel and the base which will become the Church—God’s will on earth. 
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Having been inside this very chapel, I am reminded that heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”  is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth moves into the heavenly sphere, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. 
We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. In Giotto’s image, as in most Ascension iconography, angels appear to Mary and the disciples just after Jesus’ departure. The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It is our time now, under the influence of Christ’s Holy Spirit, that we must get to work! As followers of Christ, we must foster this marriage of heaven and earth. We grow the mission of the church and in so doing we become fully alive in Christ.  
That Christ once lived on earth among us,  our relationship with Christ is everlasting. Not even death, nor tragedy nor disease can separate us from this marriage. 
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth–may no one pull asunder.
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Maybe it’s always been the case and I’ve simply not noticed it, but lately I’ve taken a lot of crap (fairly?) for criticizing my alma ecclesia, the United Methodist Church. Honestly, it’s not hard. Critiquing the several-decades- too-late- and-many-dollars-short UMC is like Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes to a besotted night club audience. If the crap I’ve taken is fair so is, I believe, the crap I’ve given. After all, we Methodists are predictable, sentimental and pop-cliche. In typical modernist fashion, we’re enamored with bureaucracy, meaningless legislative gestures and the latest fads which might appeal to seekers- which is impressive since we’re also impervious to change and innovation, allergic to accountability and unaware of genuine cultural trends.

I often point out how our terminology for church governance betrays how we traded in the Gospel for Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead of a diocese (a nice churchy word) we have a district, as though we worked for Dunder Mifflin. Instead of an archdiocese we have a conference, like the ACC. Instead of a proud episcopacy, we have a superintendents, just like the public school system, which ironically is also an unwieldy outdated bureaucracy.

But maybe that’s harsh 🙂

Given my usual prickly posture of critique, I thought I’d offer up an unusual praise. As you may know, I’m reading NT Wright’s, How God Became King. Here’s a previous entry.

Wright’s thesis is that Christians in the West have historically and categorically misread the Gospels. We’ve read them through the cipher of the creeds and our prejudicial understanding of Paul. We’ve read them as modern liberals and conservatives. As a consequence, we’ve missed how the Gospels all attempt to tell a WHOLE story not isolated teachings or vignettes. They attempt to tell the story of how the God of Israel became, in Jesus Christ, King on Earth as he is in Heaven. Wright’s thesis is one that puts ascension not crucifixion or resurrection as the climax to the tale. It’s one that marries worship and social witness in a way I think the usual liberal and conservative options miss.

And that’s where Methodism- actually John and Charles Wesley- come in. Wright cites Wesley as a rare example in the history of the Western Church who ‘got’ both the experience of loving God in one’s heart (worship) and practicing that love in a life of loving neighbor by serving the poor and advocating for justice.

I think Wright’s reading of the tradition is correct as is his identification of this Wesleyan synthesis as we Methodists’ true treasure.