Date: May 28, 2017
Title: “Standing Around, Looking Up”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 23
Congratulations on your graduation! Now, let me assure you, I am not just speaking to the high school graduates who may happen to be here today. I am also not just celebrating with the college grads, or even with those who will be receiving advanced degrees this spring. No, this message – congratulations on your graduation! – is for all of you. This celebration is for all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.
Because today we celebrate more than graduation. Today we are called to commencement – a beginning again in our discipleship. Today is Ascension Sunday. When we read that mysterious story from the book of Acts, we remember how Jesus had to leave his first disciples. He had to leave in order to help them – and help us – to graduate from following into doing, from learning into living, from hoping into being.
Now if I had been there with those first disciples, I think I might have protested just a bit. I might have said something like this…
Okay Jesus, you’ve taught us some really incredible stuff. You’ve done some amazing things – miraculous things, really. You’ve gone through horrific suffering and you’ve come out on top. So why aren’t you putting things right once and for all? It is high time for you to get on with it! Throw out the oppressors, Jesus. Lift up the marginalized. It is high time for you to end the violence, and heal the lonely, and fulfill God’s reign in all the earth!
I would have protested. And then I would have been just as gob-smacked as the Biblical characters when Jesus says “You’ve got some work to do”… and then proceeds to disappear right before my eyes! It is little wonder they stand around, looking up. They have, in essence, focused upon Jesus’ graduation without taking note of their own commencement. Suzanne Guthrie suggests that:
Ascensiontide is the most liminal time of the church year. Here you learn the skill of loving God and uniting in community at a time of ambiguity and uncertainty and waiting.
This is not an easy thing to learn. It is not easy to learn how to love God and unite in community when we are faced with ambiguity and uncertainty and find ourselves waiting. Once again we find ourselves engulfed in sorrow and trying desperately to love God and unite in community when we are all too aware of violence, ambiguity, uncertainty and waiting. We are still waiting for love to prevail. We are waiting for reason to overcome senselessness. We are waiting for peace and justice, for righteousness and hope. This morning we are waiting with tears in our eyes over Manchester children blown apart by terror, Egyptian Christians murdered in a bus, and MAX riders who lost their lives because they tried to stand up against hate.
So where does our commencement take us… and how can we stop simply standing around and looking up? Wil Gafney suggests:
First, we must avoid empty religious speech. Folk waiting for Jesus to make this world right are dying and being killed.
God’s love extends to all… so what difference does that make in our behavior?
We may believe God will exact perfect justice in the world to come, but we live in this one. And we must do the difficult work of holding our society accountable for its ills in order to dismantle and rebuild it.
We have to be willing to name the evils in our midst – white supremacy, systemic racism, economic injustice, callous disregard for human life, indifference to suffering, and hate.
[Once we name the evils] we can begin to heal the world’s hurt. Just begin the process, knowing we are not responsible for all of it or even for finishing it.
Healing begins as we name the hurt, acknowledge the fear and address the grief we all feel in a world careening toward madness. On Ascension Sunday we are invited to “go up” – to find the higher ground which is not about an escape from life, but rather an embrace of life. We are called to notice God’s presence in this moment and to begin again to take seriously our part to play in that great drama of salvation and transformation of the world.
When the psalmist candidly faces the inevitable, proclaiming not “if” but “though” I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…the writer is being honest enough and bold enough to point out that life is not all loaded tables, overflowing cups or green pastures and still waters. Sometimes our heads are not anointed with oil but plastered with sweat; sometimes we are not drinking from still waters but hanging on for dear life in Class 10 rapids. And every one of us has a valley we have to walk through. Together we have a valley where God is walking with us, right now.
God is leading us for his name’s sake, not because of anything we have done or will do, not because of who we are or what we have. God is leading us because of who God is – this God who is asking us to stop standing around and looking up, and start living a life of hope and courage and love – even when it feels as if the world is ending.
I have to tell you, when I heard of all the violence this week, I found myself lost in sorrow. But very quickly the sorrow turned to rage as I thought, “not again”. It is too much. I am so tired of week after week trying to find words to comfort, words to challenge, words to somehow put right what has gone so terribly wrong. It made me angry and all I could do was shout “How long, O Lord, how long?!”
So here we are, on the cusp of another new week. And we may enter it with trepidation, wondering what news the coming days might hold, wondering Now what?! Or, we could enter it instead with wild and stubborn hope and the commencement of faith that goes beyond standing around, looking up. As Jan Richardson suggests, in her Blessing When the World is Ending…
Look, the world is always ending somewhere.
Somewhere the sun has come crashing down.
Somewhere it has gone completely dark.
Somewhere it has ended with the gun, the knife, the fist.
Somewhere it has ended with the slammed door, the shattered hope.
Somewhere it has ended with the utter quiet that follows the news from the phone, the television, the hospital room.
Somewhere it has ended with a tenderness that will break your heart.
But listen, this blessing means to be anything but morose. It has not come to cause despair.
It is simply here because there is nothing a blessing is better suited for than an ending, nothing that cries out more for a blessing than when a world is falling apart.
This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes.
It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.
Let us welcome the blessing. And let us turn toward the light as we – and the world – begins again. Amen.