Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
6 May 2018
Observance of the Feast of the Ascension
Day Texts: Luke 24.44-53, Acts 1.1-11, Ephesians 1.15-23
1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
Grace, mercy and peace are yours from he Triune God. Amen.
When things change suddenly,
what do you cling to?
I think that’s a possible question Luke is trying to answer
when he rewrites the end of his Gospel
in the opening chapter of the sequel, Acts of the Apostles.
In the original, Jesus straps on his jetpack
and flies home,
while the disciples strap on their sandals
and go on their way rejoicing
to start the church
and continue their life together.
They’re ready to take on the world,
and do this thing for themselves.
By St. Paul’s account of the church in Ephesus,
looks like they succeeded mightily.
But in Acts, the account’s a bit more raw.
The disciples clearly aren’t ready for Jesus to go.
They’re still waiting for him to overthrow the government.
Bring the kingdom. Finish the work.
They seem content - and needful -
for Jesus to keep on leading,
and to just keep following in his footsteps.
And when he finally - and suddenly - ascends,
they’re left dumbstruck - shell-shocked? -
staring at the clouds
until an angel snaps them out of it
and sends them on their way.
It’s that second account I really relate to.
Because much as I’d like to say differently,
I don’t react to being left behind quite so readily.
Often, my reaction to the fear - or reality -
of abandonment is to cling more tightly
to something, anything,
that will help me feel secure and safe.
And if the history of the church has shown us anything,
its one of our communal specialties too.
One joke in seminary asks, “how do you move the furniture in church?”
The answer: one inch every Sunday until no one notices its different.
And its not just the church - even the most progressive societies
remain pretty conservative when it comes to massive change.
It’s hard to let go of things like privilege and supremacy,
let alone tax codes, immigration laws,
city and family traditions,
and other central figures and ideas that bind us together.
Often, our identities, individually and communally,
come from what we cling to, what we center on.
Our common loves - and our common fears -
often form the basis of our life together.
Which is why I’m thankful Luke writes again to his patron Theophilus
to set the record straight.
Almost as if those who had been a part of the actual journey
from ragtag disciples to multinational super church
Or convincing that the whole thing wasn't ret-conned after the fact.
Was it really that easy?
Because in my own experience,
people rarely give up attachments,
or weather crisis, or abandonment, that easily.
It’s particularly on my mind
because on Friday, "May the Fourth,"
I celebrated my five-year anniversary
of a committed journey to recovery
from a whole inner life built on attachment
that was causing suffering to me and to others.
I’m not naming it simply an addiction (though it included that)
or giving a specific focus (since it had and has many!)
because, deep down, it was a spiritual malady
that happened to manifest in some pretty selfish, self-seeking
and self-destructive habits.
It’s only after five years, many failures,
and many miles behind and more ahead,
that I’m able to even begin to be taste freedom.
And there’s very few attachments that I've managed to release
that don’t have claw marks all over them.
I’m really grateful to our Monday night Refuge Recovery group
and to our Buddhist Brothers and Sisters,
who rightly look beyond specific addictions to substances or practices
and name attachment, clinging,
as the root of all suffering.
They talk about how we have a natural instinct
to seek pleasure and to avoid pain,
and I actually think Christianity reflects that too -
our hearts are made for heaven, for infinite glory and divine pleasure,
and its part of being made in the image of God
to seek to enjoy God in all things.
But suffering occurs when enjoyment and appreciation
become attachment and clinging.
When we try to keep good things from ending
and try to prevent bad things from happening;
both practices, ironically, prolong suffering for all involved.
Pleasure can only do so much;
pain cannot be avoided.
Which is not to say we just zen-out and don’t feel anything;
rather, the work and the discipline is to learn the right measure of enjoyment,
a "non-attached appreciation" in place of repetitive craving,
and learn to learn from the difficult things we cannot avoid.
And, many in various recovery pilgrimages will attest,
we cannot escape these attachments on our own -
we need the aide of a “power greater than ourselves.”
Hence, I like to think, Luke’s angel,
appearing ex machina
to snap the disciples back from their heavenly navel-gazing.
I haven't met any metaphysical beings,
at least that I'm aware of.
But for me, and especially for non-theists,
the relationships with friends and communities
can help do that for us.
To help us see when we are stuck.
Attached. Suffering. Hurting ourselves and others.
To call us back. And support us on the way.
Its in this regard I am absolutely convinced
we need this church, this community
this life together, in order to stay free.
I would not be here today - might not even be alive -
if it were not for many communtities,
and especially my Christian communities,
that have sustained me in my fears and failures.
I think its one of the crazy reasons
God decided we needed a church,
why Jesus inexplicably leaves,
and leaves the fate of the universe
in the hand of a bunch of addicts, liars,
thieves, traitors, cheaters, back-stabbers,
and generally, utter failures
It's a much more believable story,
a more desirable kingdom, I think.
And perhaps, most importantly,
one of the things I’ve learned and valued
in both recovery and in church life
is the power of promises and of practices.
Of having something to replace those attachments with.
See what the angel does?
He doesn’t let them stay stuck in the past,
but reminds them of the promise Jesus made:
“this Jesus will return just as he left.”
The angel nudges them back to the promises Jesus made,
and then sends them on their way to continue practicing.
As if to say,
"Um, So what exactly are you waiting for?
He's gone. Go! Get busy being the church.
There's work to do!
The Spirit is coming!"
We need promises to reorient us in times of clinging,
and practices, in community, to help make them believable.
Otherwise, the things we’re holding on to
can become attachments at best,
at worst, idols.
It’s just what humans do with good things,
and with bad things.
I love that the first the disciples do
is not become super-apostles,
but simply go and worship in the temple daily
and gather in community.
Even in Paul’s letter, which is written to a church ostensibly
several decades removed from the Ascension,
he hasn’t gotten into deeper stuff yet.
He’s still commending them for just
loving God in faith
and loving each other well.
After that simple step-work,
gathering together, practicing,
remembering and hoping in what is to come,
and living in that direction,
comes revelation and truth,
radical and sustaining hope,
and an experience of the power of God. (see Ephesians 1.15-23)
in the same way, the disciples need to settle
back into ordinary life
before the day of Pentecost.
Practices help us when our clinging become crazy,
our fear and failures overwhelm,
when we get stuck or when we want to run.
St Ignatius of Loyola famously said
that in times of desolation, we should keep doing
what we would have done in times of consolaition.
When we face that clinging sensation,
when things change, or we are afraid,
and it seems like our foundations have been taken out from us,
I think God has given us resources.
Again, I cannot emphasize enough,
It’s why we need the church -
why I believe the church saves lives in spite of itself -
because when Jesus’ physical body is absent,
it’s where, as Rilke teaches,
we "love God into being"
for one another and for the world.
We won’t always get an angel,
but we can be that messenger for one another,
and we can also help when we ask for help,
and reach out,
and also, like Paul, when we give thanks!
And what’s more, we can love each other to the point
where the Spirit does fall upon us,
and animates us with power;
where we do come to know God as the sole Lord and Authority
and so defy powers and principalites;
where we speak in tongues;
where we hope in the midst of despair;
where we do run down the hill singing,
where the kingdom starts to become real,
not just for us,
but also for others,
and we can offer them the same promises and practices,
that have become part of our own life -
because we know that even when we feel alone
we are never alone,
and never on our own.
That is the church’s primary purpose, at the end of the day;
not, as Hauerwas says, to be a social relief agency ****actual quote
or to be a salve for loneliness
but to point the way to Jesus
and to be His body in the hear and now -
a body that, centered in God’s promises,
wil love in wisdom,
preach in power,
and welcome others.
Which promises do you desire?
Arouse your imagination,
move you to want to practice,
to stop looking up to heaven,
and to get more deeply involved
in living fully, here on earth,
with the living body of God
present to us in the bodies and souls
of our fellow human beings?
Ask for them - then get back
to the regular practices,
that not only help us release our attachments and our clinging
to receive the height and depth and width
of the love of God
and the reign of Christ.