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Sunday, June 3, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
On the Ground
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
The temptation is to focus our gaze on the sky, keep our heads in the clouds.
The action, we need to be reminded, is down here. Religion is about God, and the world about.
John M. Buchanan
This morning I’m going to do something a bit different in my sermon. I’m going to incorporate two poetic reflections on this story in the first chapter of Acts rather than use all prose. I want to do so because this story lends itself more to poetic imagery than facts. If one takes this passage too literally, you can get all hung up on the question, “How could this happen?” The problem is one of literalism. As our former pastor John Buchanan preached years ago on this text, “If you read the Bible as history or physics or biology or anthropology, you have a lot of intellectual problems. In fact, your major problem will be something that people who wrote the Bible did not have—namely, trying to reconcile a 2,000-year-old scientific worldview with what we know to be true.” Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, was not a newspaper reporter. “He’s not even an historian. He’s an artist, who tried to put into words and ideas the most important thing that ever happened . . . It makes no more sense to hold his images up to objective scrutiny and ask, “Did it really happen like that?” than it does to go down to the Art Institute and dismiss Monet because haystacks really don’t look like that.” To get so hung up would lose the meaning of this story (John M. Buchanan, “Don’t Get Caught Looking Up,” May 27, 1990).
Let’s unpack the meaning of one particular phrase. To “go up” in this story does not mean to “go away” but to “assume a position of authority.” In the Psalms, kings go up, to assume the throne, to take charge. The ascension of Jesus Christ is about his assuming his reign over all the earth. That’s far different from the spatial departure or withdrawal of the body and person of Jesus. The real problem with a literalistic interpretation of this story is that it has Jesus going away from the world and his friends and their uncertain future. The Ascension story actually should convey the opposite: Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, permeates the earth with his presence and reign, abides with us always, and empowers us to do God’s work.
Let us listen to two poetic reflections by Joseph Donders, a poet and Catholic priest in Kenya.
They Lost Their Head
While the disciples looked up, they lost their head, and their heads too. He became smaller and smaller. A cloud intervened, and off he was. God had been with them in Jesus. They had become intimate. He had taught them, fed them, paid their taxes; he had fried fish for them, he had even washed their feet.
He had promised them a new earth, a new heaven, a kingdom to come, and off he was.
It was as if all the doors of heaven, that had been opened for about thirty-three years, closed again. Curtains were drawn. Shutters rattled down. Lights went out. A foggy cloud appeared: It took all vision away.
They lost their head, and losing their head, they lost their heads, too.
They were dazzled, they remained looking.
They were paralyzed, petrified on the spot.
Two angels had to appear to get them on the move.
They stumbled down the mountain,
they found their way to Jerusalem.
They, at the beginning of the church, the beginning of Christ’s body,
they with their worldwide mission locked themselves up in an upper room:
Upper rooms are always safer than ground-floor ones;
and they did not know what to do:
They had lost their head, their head was in the clouds.
You know how a man with his head in the clouds reacts:
he sits down on chairs that are not there and he hurts himself;
he waits for buses that do not arrive;
he makes a sandwich and eats his paper napkin;
he wets a stamp to put it on his letter and sticks it on the table.
A [person] with his head in the clouds is useless,
hopeless; his body stumbles along, fails, gets lost.
Those disciples, the church with its head in the clouds
at the right hand of the Father, did not know what to do:
There were no signals, there was no communication,
and they sat down and waited behind locked doors until,
Until the signals suddenly came through again,
the contact was restored,
even to the extent that there were sparkles everywhere:
light, fire, noise, breath, wind, storm, enthusiasm,
and SPIRIT, his spirit.
And they rose, and they entered into the life of this world.
(Joseph Donders, “They Lost Their Head,” Jesus, the Stranger, pp. 210-212)
And a second poetic rendition by Joseph Donders:
Celebrating a Departure
Departures have something sad about them. Every departure has something of dying in it. In many languages one expresses that: to leave is to die a bit. And yet departures are often celebrated. We all know of farewell parties. In all departures there is an element of liberation, of letting go.
There is the sick person who is allowed to leave the hospital. The doctor told him that he did not need any extra help anymore. And the formerly sick person is so happy that he even walks that first evening more than he should have done.
There is that student who passed [her] last test successfully, who obtained [her] degree or diploma or certificate with all the “powers pertaining” to that degree and who leaves to be free as a bird.
Every mother closed once the door behind her son, every father closed once the door behind his daughter, saying: “Good bye, I leave you now, you are prepared, make the best of it!”
That evening Jesus suddenly stood no longer in their midst. He had been lifted up, he was going to be taken away, he had promised them power and authority, he had promised them the Spirit and he had told them: “All right, I did my work, I have done my part, I am now going to leave it to you.” And in one grandiose gesture he entrusted to them the whole wide world unto the ends of the earth, unto the end of time.
He disappeared very slowly out of their vision and they remained standing there on the spot, looking up at the sky, looking behind him in heaven, with their hearts and minds far from this world, until all at once two men in white were standing near them, who asked: “Why are you men of Galilee, here in Galilee, looking up into the sky?”
And they came to themselves, and they started to move, and they walked from the mountain into their world with [Jesus’] vision, to do what he left us to do.
We should celebrate, really celebrate, his departure: it left us his disciples, it left us adults and grown-ups, people capable by divine decree and certified by God . . . of changing this world into the Kingdom to come. Not because he left us alone to clear all problems by ourselves. If that would be true our services might fall dead on the rocks of this world.
He did not leave us alone, we remain with his blessing, with his last advice, with his recommendations, with all he taught, but even more than that, we remain with his Spirit, we remain with his power. We are not alone, we will never be alone . . .
(Joseph Donders, “Celebrating a Departure,” The Peace of Jesus, pp. 147-150)
Let us also remember other words Jesus said upon his departure.
In John 16:7, Jesus says to his followers, “I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send the Spirit to you.”
In the final verse of the gospel of Matthew, verse 28:20, Jesus says, “teach them all I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus told those disciples long ago, as he tells us now, that “he was going to send [us] the spirit from on high, down into us still here on earth . . . and with that power in us we should realize heaven around us here in this world” (Joseph Donders, “In and Out,” Jesus, Hope Drawing Near, p. 132).
Here in this world. On the ground. So don’t stand around with your head lost in the clouds. Don’t be paralyzed by uncertainty or aloneness. Christ abides within and among us, here on earth, every day. Christ empowers us to love our neighbors. Christ needs us to carry on his healing care, his prophetic work for justice, his loving especially those who are marginalized.
Michael Gerson, a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post who claims roots as an evangelical Christian, wrote a recent article called, “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way.” He gives numerous accounts of how the national leadership in our country is living out values opposite from the Beatitudes, as if they said, “Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.”
An immigration policy of zero tolerance means that now, in the United States, infant children are being torn from their parents’ arms, even when those parents followed all the right procedures seeking political asylum, fleeing from the harsh conditions in their own country. Immigrants on our south border are called animals, rapists, and murderers; an unconstitutional ban is attempted to keep Muslims from entering our country; Haitian and African immigrants are dismissed as undesirable compared to Norwegians. For many years, far more people of color in this country have been incarcerated than whites, and they have been targets of police brutality. Last evening I heard an innocent black man speak who, at the age of twenty, was tortured by our former Police Chief Burges to make a guilt confession that cost him twenty years behind bars. He said, “In the United States, it is the land of the free if you are white. If you are a person of color, you must be brave.”
Racism is rampant in our nation. Gerson wrote, “This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way” (Michael Gerson, “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way–And Got Hooked by Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, April 2018). Let us not lose our way, with our head in the clouds. We are on the ground, called to carry out Jesus’ work in the world. God gives us strength and guidance in the Holy Spirit to love one another, right here, right now, in our country, in the reign of Christ. Amen.