Homily at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Thursday, May 25, 2006
When there is a good news / bad news message, I always like to get the bad news first. The bad news is that the feast of the Ascension falls on a Thursday – and without presents or ashes, it is a liturgical backwater. The good news is that we don’t have to complete with the feast of American Idol – which falls on Wednesdays. God bless Taylor Hicks.
Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Are we so intimidated by men in white robes that we are unable to muster a reasonable response to such a question? Men of Galilee stand your ground – take in this moment – and remember your Scripture; quote the Psalmist who prays, “The Lord looks down from heaven, and beholds all the people in the world. From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze on all who dwell on the earth. He fashions all the hearts of them and understands all their work.” (Psalm 33: 13-15). Drawing on other sources, site this prayer, which I read at a Committal service on Tuesday, a prayer from the Burial Services supplement to the Book of Common Prayer: “Death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. Lift us up, O God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to thyself.”
Instead of feeling reprimanded by the question asked by the men in white robes, we can see it as an opportunity to think through the implications of the Ascension, drawing on our theological and contemporary perspectives.
In the rural English town of Little Walsingham, there is a stone church – like so many other churches in England – with a number of altars — one of them dedicated to the Feast of the Ascension. Above a small table and few candles is a sculpture of clouds, carved in wood. From the midst of these clouds, there are two sandled feet protruding – a freeze frame of that last moment and glimpse of the incarnation. We hold this moment and know that Jesus is not half-ascended or stuck somewhere in a cloud – whether nimbus, cumulus or stratus. But the question remains: where did Jesus go? Theologically, we claim that Jesus has ascended to the Father, and in the words of Psalm 110 “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand.” Jesus has fused his humanity and ours into the Godhead for eternity. The letter to the Hebrews adds that Jesus enters the heavenly temple as our heavenly priest to make purification for human sin.
It seems we are embarrassed to consider the non-theological because we are left with a Jesus who is floating around in outer space or traveling at the speed of light, having traversed a tiny portion of our own galaxy in the past two thousand years. Because the incarnation is so important to us, I want to stay with this idea – the physical ascension and what this means for us. In a word, it means perspective. We usually think about the Ascension from our perspective – that of Jesus going away from us and the resulting feelings of separation, abandonment or joy as reported by Luke. Consider instead the perspective of Jesus, the mind of Christ. At first, you see a group of bewildered faces as they look up, then the expanse of the desert landscape, a thin blue line that is the Jordan River, the almond shaped Galilee, the oblong Mediterranean, irregular outlines of continents, oceans, the arching horizon set against a blue background that fades to black as a whole earth is seen in its stunning totality – azure, green swaths, white wisps and a jewel-like essence that pulses in an open sea of darkness. Ascending and ascending, the earth fades to a pinprick in the vastness of interstellar space. With ever greater distance, the saucer shaped Milky Way, Andromeda and other local galaxies that pinwheel around each other become a distinct group, which is just an eyelash of light in the fireworks of the Virgo Cluster. The totality of what we know as the universe comes into view as the Virgo Cluster is a wisp of an apple blossom, along with a million others as they twirl and float in the early spring as a gust of wind frees them their branches.
Since I am a believer in props, I have brought with me this bag of sand. How many grains of sand are contained in this one-pound sack? I didn’t count them, but my best guess is that there are 5 million individual grains of sand. Jesus talks about mustard seeds – but what I like about sand, is that it is available almost everywhere, and that it is just about the smallest object that can be seen with the naked eye (reading glasses allowed). There is a grain of sand in this bag for every man, woman and child in Chicago. If every man, woman and child on earth had a twenty pound sack of sand – 100 million grains each, the total number of grains would begin to approximate the number of stars in the universe – about 1 quintillion stars (not trillion or quadrillion but quintillion). This is the Ascension perspective – the ability to see the incomprehensible vastness of creation and at the same time to know the love and attention of God for just a single grain of it – and for each and every detail of it – each and every hair on your head.
Ascension perspective means that we see that 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day; 800 million people are chronically under nourished; 30,000 children die every day from hunger-related illnesses.
Ascension perspective means that there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism – something to keep in mind as Episcopalians prepare for their 75th General Convention and as Lutherans listen to the call to Journey Together Faithfully – and as both denominations grapple with issues of sexuality and Scriptural authority that severely test their communion, communication and common life.
Ascension perspective means taking the time to get the big picture for our parishes – whether that means how to live into a beautiful new facility that is here at St. Barnabas or new leadership at St. Mark’s and the opportunity for new visioning for youth, mission and a healthy community. It means that we are all in that time of planning for the coming fall and program year.
Ascension is perspective – and may God bless us as we celebrate this liturgical backwater with perspective on our lives, families, parishes, communities and the world.