Worship notes: the challenge of Ascension Sunday...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Sunday, June 1st 2014 - Ascension Sunday.

Introduction
I was in conversation with a young man from our congregation this week who has completed seminary and is exploring his options for serving the Lord in the future. Among the many things we discussed was the psychological evaluation that has now become a standard part of all ordination processes:  sadly, over the past 40 years there have simply been too many unhealthy and unfit people who have been ordained and unleashed on our churches when they should have been weeded out. Too many innocent people have been hurt. So as a reaction to our failures, most traditions now require that a psych evaluation take place and become part of the on-going minister’s file.

As my conversation continued – and we talked about the good and troubling parts of any and all psych evaluations – I heard myself saying, “You know, while I understand the reasons why these evaluations occur – and I totally support them – there is just something ironic about testing a person for psychological stability after they have been called and chosen to go into ministry!  I mean, this is one of the craziest jobs you can take – and if you’re not a little off when you start, you will be if you stick with it!” To which he added:  “And let’s not even factor into our dedication a 2,000 year old Palestinian peasant whom we believe and trust to have been raised from the dead, right?!  That alone should disqualify us all!”

I mention this conversation and the ironies therein not to denigrate the value of helping people discern their calling and fitness for ministry - nor to deny that blessings can and do take place through wise and compassionate counseling – but rather to point out the sometimes outrageous and scandalous truths we are asked to embrace as people living in the spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord.  St. Paul used to say that Christians who look to the Cross as a sign of God’s love are considered to be fools who are out of their minds.  In I Corinthians 1, Peterson gives us Paul’s words with spectacular precision:

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written, I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head; I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots. So tell me: where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching and teaching of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. While some people in the Jewish tradition clamor for miraculous demonstrations and others in the Greek philosophical seek logical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified.  For some this seems like an anti-miracle—and to other it is absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks and all other nationalities, too—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” And that is why I celebrate being a fool for Christ!

This is the UPSIDE-DOWN kingdom, beloved, where losers can become winners – and hitting rock bottom can become a way to greater health and hope – where the Cross is seen as an instrument of God’s peace rather than a sign of shame and fear – and where those who follow Christ as Lord are called fools by those in power because we trust a wisdom and a love that is greater than all human reason, imagination and power.  

INSIGHTS
And NOWHERE is the full foolishness of God’s wisdom expressed more clearly than today as we honor the Ascension of Christ into heaven.

·   This is Ascension Sunday – the last Sabbath in the 50 great days of Easter – the feast that takes place before Pentecost next week – and on the surface of Ascension Sunday, this looks like one wild and crazy celebration.

·    And because it looks so weird on the surface, most Protestants – especially in our hyper-educated, Reformed tradition where most clergy wear academic gowns in worship and all ordained leaders are required to have advanced degrees (and psychological evaluations) – most of us don’t know what to do with Ascension Sunday.  It sounds like embarrassing, pre-scientific superstitious mumbo jumbo that is just too much to ask of the people we love in the church.  So, mostly, we ignore it.

And on one hand I get trying to dance around the spiritual wisdom of the
lessons appointed for today – they sound crazy and unbalanced – and just don’t make any obvious sense. Jesus has been lifted in to heaven in his resurrected body? Where did he go? Are we really supposed to believe that his BODY went to heaven where it is seated at the right hand of God the Father? How can that be? 

Where in God’s name IS this heaven?  And what the devil are we supposed to make of such foolishness? Easter is bad enough – it is a very tough sell these days – but the Ascension – give me a break? No, man, let’s just ignore this one and keep moving until we get to Pentecost. Believe me, I get that!  I’m all for talking about being a fool for Christ, but let’s not get ridiculous.

On the other hand, there is something powerful and holy in these peculiar texts that ask us to be playful as we go deeper into the foolishness of God’s love and wisdom. So let me suggest two truths that I have been wrestling with that have helped me start to love and even honor the blessings of Ascension Sunday.

·   First, we have to remember that Luke is not writing a linear history when he gives us stories in both Luke and the book of Acts.  He is sharing poetry and ideas in symbolic forms so that we catch a glimpse of truths too deep for human words.

·   This is not a book of science or social studies facts. Rather, Luke is going deeper than what is obvious.  He is not reporting, he is preaching; he is not summarizing, but sermonizing as he gives us some theological poetry to play with.  Specifically this prose poem seeks to connect Jesus with Moses so that the Ascension becomes Christianity’s story of the Exodus. (John Holbert, http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Speculators-or-Witnesses-John-Holbert-05-14-2012#ixzz32wFeJ0KM)

You may recall that the book of Acts is really part two of Luke’s gospel.  In Luke he tells the story of how Jesus was born, in Acts he tells the story of how the church – the new body of Christ – is born.  In Luke, Jesus comes into the world through the body of Mary by way of the power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the new body of Christ comes into the world through the body of the Church – the new Mary – by way of the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. 

And then Luke wants to help us make all the connections we can with Christ’s tradition so that we have something we can trust. You see, in his day unlike our own, people were suspicious of things that were called brand new and improved. They wanted to be rooted in tradition. So Luke goes out of his way to help people see the connections – and for today he wants to show how Jesus was grounded in the tradition of Moses and Elijah.

That’s why Luke talks about Jesus being “lifted up.” Does anybody recall the story of Jesus meeting with Moses and Elijah on the mountain – that event we call the transfiguration – does that ring a bell? In that story, Jesus is on the mountain in prayer when the prophet Elijah and the law-giver Moses appear together. 

·   Luke wants us to understand that the ministry of Jesus is part of the justice tradition of Elijah – who was also taken and lifted up by the love of God to heaven in bodily form – and the ethical/religious tradition of Moses who is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. In fact, Luke actually concludes the Transfiguration story with the words that all of this took place “as the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up.” (Luke 9: 51)

·   Are you still with me?  Do you see the connections being made? For the people of his generation, Luke wants them to know that Jesus isn’t something brand new, but rather he continues the wisdom, justice and spirituality made flesh in time and history as expressed in the Jewish tradition. 

And just so that there is no ambiguity, Luke describes the Christian exodus experience in words that would once again evoke Elijah and Moses saying:  Jesus was lifted up.  Not only did he cross over – as was true for Moses at the Red Sea – but he was taken up into heaven by the grace of God.  Bible scholars put it like this: “Jesus' ascension, accomplished in Acts 1, is nothing less than his exodus from the earth, mirroring Elijah's own mysterious ascension in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:9-11” as well as that exodus of Moses that brought freedom to the children of Israel.

Luke connects the events of Jesus' ascent to God with similar experiences in the Hebrew Bible…joining Jesus with the quintessential prophet of justice, Elijah. By so doing, Luke in his unique literary way uses the ascension motif as a way of preaching to us a sermon about the true identity of Jesus Messiah, recalling his many roots in the sacred past of Israel's story.

·   That’s the first blessing for me in playing with this Ascension story: it isn’t about hocus pocus and pre-scientific superstition. No, the Ascension is a poem about God’s justice and mercy – a grace that takes place in time and history – but is greater than both our facts and imagination.

·    You might even say that Luke is reminding us that God’s grace, justice and mercy are out of this world.  Any thoughts or reactions?

The second blessing for me that is embodied in the poem of Christ’s ascension into heaven in bodily form has something to do with living into a faith that honors and celebrates our bodies and souls and spirits just as much as our minds. 

The master of Centering Prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating, once said that when our
Scriptures tell us that the resurrected body of Jesus was taken up into heaven, it is an affirmation that a living, breathing, healing and totally upside-down faith must include our whole bodies just as much as Christ’s whole body.  He writes: The key to being a Christian is to know Jesus Christ with the whole of our being. It is just as important to know his sacred humanity through our senses as it is to reflect upon it with our reason.

·   Now let’s play with that for a moment:  ALL of our senses – not just our reason and intellect – not just quiet moments of contemplation and prayer – but ALL of our senses.

·   That’s what today’s Psalm asks of us:  it invites us to love God as smoke is driven away and wax melts… as the compassionate are joyful and SING unto the Lord… who becomes a Father for the orphans and a protector for the widows… who becomes a shelter for those in desolation and water for even a parched land. 

Let us LOVE the Lord our God with ALL our senses – honoring the times like Jesus when we felt God’s absence and emptiness as well as those times when we feasted and were full to overflowing.

Conclusion
Because when we love God with all our senses – when we honor our bodies as well as our minds and spirits – then there is the chance we will honor OTHER bodies – especially those who are wounded and broken. The Ascension of Jesus is both a playful, poetic prayer that connects us to the law and the prophets of Israel, AND, an invitation to embrace and share the justice and mercy of the Lord wherever OUR bodies go.

For a long time I tried to ignore and hide from Ascension Sunday but I have to tell you now I’m loving it – loving it with ALL my senses – and I hope you can, too. And if you think I’m just totally crazy in this interpretation remember what the two men – the angels – say to the disciples as they stand there and watch the exodus of Jesus into heaven:  OK, THAT’S ENOUGH, WHY DO YOU KEEP STARING UP INTO THE HEAVENS?  IT’S TIME THAT YOU GET BACK TO WORK SHARING MERCY AND JUSTICE JUST AS JESUS TAUGHT YOU… SO GET TO IT!

As this summer unfolds and our justice work in the community ripens – as we explore with our cousins in Judaism new ways to encourage peace in Palestine and hope for the poor in the Berkshires – we will look back to this text that links Jesus to Elijah and Moses – and it shall be for us the good news that it was for our ancestors in their time of change.  Lord, may it be so among us.

credits:
1) www.progressivechurchmedia.com
2) gregronning.com
3) www.salfordliturgy.org.uk
4) lylemook.wordpress.com
5) mikesstudies.blogspot.com

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