First Congregational Church
May 29, 2022
Ascension Sunday, 7th Sunday of Easter
“What Are We Waiting For?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So there’s a story of a priest who was going through his normal routine of preparing for worship one Sunday morning. As was his custom, he opened the church and walked through the sanctuary, praying for those who would gather in that sacred space that morning. He then walked outside like he did every Sunday, to ensure that the peaceful grounds of the church were in order.
That morning, he noticed that a vagrant was sleeping in the courtyard. To make matters worse, the scruffy outsider had kicked his shoes off and propped his feet up on their statue of St. Francis.
The priest, not wanting to cause a scene with worshipers set to arrive any moment, quickly went to the vagrant and told him that while he was welcome to worship at the church that morning, the parishioners would be most upset to see him defiling their sacred statue with his dirty feet.
The vagrant looked at the priest and said, “I’m happy to move my feet to a more suitable place if this is too holy. To keep me from repeating this mistake in the future, could you tell me what ground is not holy?” As the story goes, the unknown man then revealed himself to be St. Francis, and then poof — he was gone.
There’s some holy ground in this morning’s scripture passage, not that anyone else in would probably take notice of it. Its holiness comes from the fact that it is the place where Jesus says his last recorded words, written some 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In my mind, it is at least “special” in that it is the complement to Jesus’ coming to earth, in a stable.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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. 4 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. 5 For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “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, Carlisle. As I’ve been thinking about this day, this past week, this particular last week, and all of us, together, near and far, in the present and perhaps in the future, it made me think of a braid - hair or fabric, twine or wire. And because it, too, has a piece on this particular day, I am delighted to share that braid is also military slang for scrambled egg.
So we have the strands that come together, touching each other, holding each other in place - of the school shooting in Texas, an earthquake in Peru and Bolivia, the angst building up in political elections, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and gas prices rising up and environmental change, graduations and the beginning of wedding and reunions season, and of course, the linger of covid and then there’s monkeypox, abuses, and violence of all sorts. When you sprinkle this morning’s scripture passage into all that, it may seem that the salt has lost its flavor.
But the two men dressed in white - interesting. It wasn’t that long ago we were contemplating the men in white at a certain gravesite of a certain empty tomb, talking about Jesus ‘not being there anymore.’ It sure seems like it should be relevant - in one way or another.
And it’s not the words themselves, uttered by these guys, but I want to know the inflection of their voices. Was it a stern reprimand? Or a strong suggestion? It was my pal, Stephen Garnaas Holmes that gave yet another thought. Why do we stand and look at the sky - or casket - or the newscast - or the medical report?
“Because sometimes all you can do is stare into the space where once there was something you loved. Because sometimes there’s a gap between the last step of the journey and the first one of the next one. Because grief is the grain in the pearl of believing. Because sometimes there's an empty place in you that only the right kind of silence can fill. Because it's sometimes only empty air and a vast, insistent silence where we can hear the voice, the silent voice, and feel the presence, the huge unsayable presence of the One in whose absence there is such nearness. Because sometimes, - God, sometimes you just really miss the skin.”
I know I’ve mentioned it before, the fact that a fair bit of my sabbatical time was spent with my dad, cleaning every closet, cupboard, and drawer in his house. It was long enough after his wife died, and it was time. I surely didn’t go there with helping him sort out the house in mind. If I’d known ahead of time, I’m sure I’d have fretted and fussed about it in my own mind. But it started with the silverware drawer.
No one would have guessed that that little drawer contained pieces of five different silverware sets! And who would have suspected 3 forks, 6 spoons, and 2 knives of one set mixed in with odd numbers of other sets? But the prize was finding that there really was one complete set! And only God knew that that one little drawer would lead to three or four completely filled home trash dumpsters, eight or nine trips to Goodwill, box diving at the grocery, phone, and liquor stores, not to mention a few garbage bags.
One little silverware drawer led to a fresh feel for the whole house. But doing something for our world and society that can make a difference? That can be immobilizing in its overwhelming potential and possibilities. So I give great credit to Greg Moore and Cameron Merrill at ministrymatters.com for their insight and work in helping us be able to take the next step into our Jerusalems, Judeas, Samarias, and ends of the earth.
Before I get to their point, a definition. We don’t hear the word ubiquity all that often, and it means “the fact of appearing everywhere or being very common. Example: The ubiquity of mobile phones means you don’t really need a watch.
Greg and Cameron wrote, “The Ascension of Christ does not mark God’s absence but God’s ubiquity. We know, this sounds like ephemeral, ethereal spirituality run amok. But the church claiming the elevated ubiquity of Christ on Ascension Sunday is not primarily a spiritual claim. This is a political claim. The church's claim that Christ is ubiquitous, is over and against Caesar's claim of ubiquitous control. Caesar's bounds unravel when the church claims that Christ is elevated above; ruling all; claiming all.
Which is why the British church had the ancient practice of beating the bounds. During the time ahead of Ascension Day, they would wander the boundaries of the parish, blessing the homes and the fields as they went. Reading from the Psalms and the Gospel, the priests and town officials, as they walked around, would beat the boundary posts of the parish to mark the space cared for by that portion of Christ’s body. Ascension is about the body of Christ beating the false bounds of this world back with the claim of Christ taking space back from the grips of death.” Just when I thought I’d learned all I needed to know…
Instead of reading from the Psalms and the Gospel, I thought that we could all take the extra bulletin inserts with us this week, as we walk, drive, longboard, bike, motorcycle, or even boat, and do a little intentional praying - and I deeply apologize for the spelling errors that were missed.
We can wait til the cows come home or the sun shines, Nellie, but really, there is no need to wait. We can start at the top of the prayer sheet and go through the whole thing in a day or do one a day. Just don’t do it while driving, riding or any other action that could get you in trouble or hurt.
There is a lot in this world that seems beyond our ability to fix or help. Except that we have a resurrected and ascended Savior who is also our brother, who is part of the braid of the Trinity, the source of all being and energy, love and light, and we can tap into it for free. In truth, we are a bunch of fireworks with great potential of joy and delight. This passage in Acts is the match that sparks our efforts to be God’s people in beating the bounds of evil and wrong-doing.
There are times when we need to just stand and look up, or down, sit or lie down or whatever it is that gives us the space for a little healing of heart and mind and body and soul. God’s psalm for that is number 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” And there’s not a period at the end of that statement, but a semi-colon; “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
As partners in exalting or lifting up God as we follow Christ, let’s not wait any longer as we pray. Holy God, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, thank you for giving us purpose, because without it, we would be as a boat without a rudder. For the times when we’ve turned away from our call, forgive us, reaffirm us and motivate us with renewed energy. Help us tune in to the struggling single parents in need of community, for the newly relocated who are looking for a place to call home, for those who are wondering how to even begin to connect with you or even if you are even real, for the children who are simply yearning for a place to play with friends, that all will find their way in because of the space you are making through us. Help all of us to hear and heed the call you have for each of us, to be your witnesses. May our beating of the bounds help the sick find healing, the hungry be fed, the stranger welcomed and the vulnerable sheltered. May we all rest this day and every day and night in the place you’ve prepared for us, right where we are. And all your people pray all these things as we all say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.