First Congregational Church
April 24, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Easter
“Footprints On the Earth”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A new pastor was visiting in the homes of his parishioners. At one house it seemed obvious that someone was at home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. So, he took out a business card and wrote 'Revelation 3:20' on the back of it and stuck it in the door. When the offering was processed the following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message, 'Genesis 3:10.’ Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he broke up in gales of laughter. Revelation 3:20 begins 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.' Genesis 3:10 reads, 'I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid for I was naked.’
Funny the stuff we don’t know that really is in the Bible. Perhaps the book of Leviticus is the hardest/harshest. Leviticus 10:6 says: “Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes.” So while some modern hipsters have the slouch hat right, those ripped jeans are a sin. It’s the book that says that "Anyone who dishonors father or mother must be put to death. Such a person is guilty of a capital offense.” (Leviticus 20:9) Leviticus 19:19 says: "'Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material." 90% cotton, 10% rayon? Congratulations, you, too, are a sinner! Bad fashion has long been known to be a crime, just not against God!
For most of us, Thursday May 5 - Ascension Day - will float by like so many other days. But if you are tuned into the lectionary - that great prescribed reading list of Bible passages for each day of the year - then you might wonder why this passage of Christ’s ascension is being read today - eleven whole days before the event.
Part of the reason for going “off lectionary” is that I’ve wondered what it might be like to look at what the book of Acts has for us - so long after it’s writing - some 80-90 years after Christ’s death. I’m not sure how it will pan out in the long run - but I remember one of my clergy mentors doing something similar; and the idea obviously stuck.
The book is properly called The Acts of the Apostles. It’s perhaps better to use the whole name, because just “Acts” is rather vague. The link is more direct, too, from apostles to disciples to us. Apostles are more properly “teachers,” while disciples are more rightly “students,” and aside from those original thirteen, everyone else since then - and us - would then rightly be students of the teachers of Our Teacher.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Thank you, Michael. In just eleven days, it will have been forty days since Easter. The number forty should throw up a little yellow flag of other forties: Noah’s rain of forty days and nights, the Israelites’ forty years eating desert manna, Moses’ forty days getting the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’ forty days in the desert of temptation, to name some of the big 40’s.
There’s another link in this passage and Easter - and that’s in the “suddenly two men dressed in white” part. In this author’s “former book,” the book we call Luke, there were “suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning (that) stood beside” the women that went into Jesus’ tomb. We suspect those two men - in both instances - to be angels - which is - in reality - as odd as the admonition against mixing clothing fibers.
If for no other reason, we need this reminder that Jesus’ ascension fulfills his circle - shepherds looking to the sky at a star when he was born, the apostles looking to the cloud that received Jesus back. His ascension back to God’s right hand reminds us that we, like Jesus, are spiritual beings having a human experience - that eternity is really our home.
While all that about “up there” and all the stuff that’s actually “in” the passage - equally interesting - maybe more interesting - at least to me - is what’s “not” there, and what’s left “down here” in the real world of our “here and now.
In a nod to last week’s Earth Day celebration, Ole and Sven were sitting in a kayak and got a little chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can't have your kayak and heat it too. Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The Ceremony wasn't much, but the reception was excellent. A man walks into a bar with a slab of asphalt under his arm and says: "A beer please, and one for the road."
Albrecht Dürer was a German painter, printmaker, theorist and contemporary of Raphael, Bellini and da Vinci. What he “didn’t” see in the account from Acts, he put into a woodcut that I’ve printed here for “show and tell.” What Dürer didn’t see was footprints, specifically, Jesus’. So he had Jesus on a rise of some sort, near eye-level with the apostles - so they wouldn’t miss them.
Maybe Herr Dürer was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text, as Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City said. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth."
Jesus’ dusty footprints are all over the pages of the gospels: in the desert, walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong sort of people, walking up to Zacheaus’ tree and inviting himself for dinner, stumbling with the cross on the way to the place of The Skull.
The Ascension is probably the most difficult event in the life of Jesus for us to reconcile with a scientific worldview. For Christians, that’s a big place where faith comes in to play. Regardless of our position on the reality of Jesus’ ascension, his footprints have great examples for us.
So many of us have seen, read or heard the old “Footprints in the Sand” poem by Mary Stevenson. One night I dreamed a dream, as I was walking along the beach with my Lord, across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. "Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you; never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”
There are times in our lives when we carry other people. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, perhaps emotionally more times than not. As students of the teachers of The Teacher, we don’t have to carry the load of those people or situations all alone. Christ - along with the Holy Spirit - walks beside us to help us carry our burdens, even when the burden is our own self. When Christ gave the apostles that gift of the Holy Spirit, it wasn’t just for them - but for all of us - that all of us would be able to be Christ’s witnesses - to the ends of the earth.
Our work here on earth - as represented in our footprints - is important - extremely important. Whether it is helping to reconcile brokenness, or to help heal our land or to bring joy to the prisoners, our footprints matter, each and every one of them. The crazy part is that regardless of the medium, our footprints are also so very temporary.
We walk on grass and the grass may “remember” our steps for a time, but the grass grows again. We walk on asphalt, but no one sees our imprint. The wind blows and a footprint on the beach is gone in an instant. And yet, we know where we’ve been. We know what has transpired in our own lives, and that gives us credit to become the helpers to those who come our way - for whatever time we have with them.
It’s not always easy, to walk with those who need us. But that is exactly the same truth for each of us. So we pay it forward, or backward or whatever way, those footprints that came beside us, in gratitude to the other footprints that come by ours, but most especially so to honor God. So shall we pray.
Gracious God, we thank you for the example - and footprints - of your son. Thank you for sending him, raising him, returning him, and by his example, giving us certainty that we never walk alone, and that we can walk beside those who need us. Sustain us when our footprints seem aimless, and strengthen us when we tire. Receive all our footprints, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. And all your people say, Amen
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.