Throughout the readings for this weekend, we have been admonished concerning speaking of things we know little about; closing the distance between our heads and our hearts. Much of what we have heard, however, clearly states that the distance between our heads and our hearts encompasses our tongues which get in the way of our ability to truly root our lives in love.
As we just heard in the last verse of Psalm 19, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God’s word needs God’s forgiving, gracious blessing.
For me, however, it is the New Testament readings that give clear lessons on building up or tearing down God’s world. In James, we are reminded of the power of the tongue. As some of you know, I work with children with learning disabilities at the Discovery School at Four Corners in Greenfield. I am well aware of just how frequently I miss the mark when I am teaching a new concept to these kids. They let me know. And I know that in this time of COVID how important it is to build these kids up and help alleviate their fears. I am blessed to work with many people who take this challenge seriously, and we all try very hard to get it right. But James also assures us that while teachers are held to the strictest of standards, no one gets it perfectly right. We all make mistakes, and only a perfect human could completely control their tongue and life. Only Jesus always has the right words all the time. Jesus is the truth, and James’ letter is the message of an early preacher trying to help his flock understand the real importance of not just knowing the truth, but living it.
The distance between the head and the heart seems to be a theme in James. The head understands the idea of Jesus and his care for others, while the heart is responsible for the actions born out of the idea once it truly takes root in the heart and the soul. In between is the the tongue - the stumbling block between the head and the heart. As Eugene Peterson says in his translation of scripture, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything — or destroy it!” And again Peterson tells us that when the tongue runs wild, “With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image.” It seems pretty unlikely in this excerpt that the heart will have a chance to create actions to match the the blessing given by the head. This reading clearly shows that while the tongue is a very small organ, it carries enormous power for either good or evil.
Most of us have probably seen this in our lives. Either in something we said or something said to us. Almost nothing makes me feel worse than saying something without thinking and watching another human being deflate before my eyes. That is the kind of destruction our tongues can do. And it takes time, repentance and true love in our hearts to try to mend that pain and rebuild trust. How much more amazing is it to watch what happens when we exercise the love God has put in our hearts to build someone up?
I worked with a child once who seemed to be at the bottom of everyone’s care list. He was not sweet and lovable in the traditional sense. In fact he was more like a porcupine with quills ready to eject. I was bothered by the sense that he had given up on himself, largely because he thought everyone had given up on him. I watched him for signs of things that might excite him, and one day at recess I got my clue. Someone flew down Rt. 112 in a sports car that was bright red and very fast. His eyes lit up. I said, “Hey, do you know what kind of car that was?” And he was off - he gave me the model, the year, the kind of engine and the power it had. His eyes were alive and he seemed confident and clear. I picked up a book on cars over the next weekend, along with a couple of magazines on classic cars and fast cars. He was shocked that I had gotten them for him. I told him that he would need to read articles to me, and explain some things I did not understand. I explained that he was much smarter than I was at understanding how cars work. It seemed like I was watching him grow and transform before my eyes. We used car examples in math and we read car articles and wrote car stories in English. This was a child who needed someone to boost him up instead of tear him down. He needed to feel loved and appreciated; to feel like he was special and important. It was my job to show him how special he was, as we are all special in God’s eyes. I got a chance to ‘build him up in love.’
In the gospel, again the power of words is evident. First, when Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” But even more powerfully when, as we just heard, after Jesus has been teaching his disciples quite openly about what is to come, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Then, he calls the crowd to join his disciples, and he makes it clear that his way is not for the faint of heart. As Peterson writes, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat, I am…Self sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” While words are important, the gospel helps us see how important the corresponding actions are.
In our Bible Study, the third reading of the scripture is followed by the question, “What does God, in this reading, make be want to do and/or be?” This is an action question. This is the question where we ask ourselves to be accountable; to be willing to walk our talk; to understand that just saying that we are moved, or that we see God in this reading is not enough. We are asked what we are willing to change in our lives or ourselves, or what we are willing to do in order to follow God’s will for us more clearly. I asked myself that after reading the gospel. What God makes me want to do and/or be was pretty clear. God makes me want to be the be the best lover of His creation and people that I can be. I feel blessed to be working with children who need me. They are easy to love. But I also feel blessed to work with Steve in Emmaus Companions with folks on the margins. Sometimes they are less easy to love, but I always feel better when I spend my God-given love unconditionally.
Jesus does not give us an out. If we listen to his words, we must answer with our actions. He tells us to follow him. That is not a command to sit at home and read the bible, or even to just come to church on Sunday and go home feeling virtuous. We have a great responsibility in our lives as followers of Jesus. Are we willing to walk our talk? Are we willing to spend the love that God has put in our hearts?
And this brings me back to my opening thought from Ilia Delio, where she says that Teilhard held that God is at “…the depth and center of everything that exists. . . . Our nature is already endowed with grace, and
thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without—mind and heart—so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if [it] is rooted in love, and in this way, both Christians and non-Christians can participate in the emerging body of Christ. . . .
Our lives have meaning and purpose. . . . We either help build this world up in love or tear it apart. Either way, we bear the responsibility for the world’s future, and thus we bear responsibility for God’s life as well.” (See footnote 1)
At the end today’s service, when we hear Heather say, “This service has ended. Now let ours begin.”, my plan is to go forth and spend God’s love lavishly on everyone I meet. What is yours?
1. Ilia Delio, The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey 1 (Orbis Books: 2021), 41–42, 43
But it is unlikely you will find a Hallmark card featuring the line “Happy Ascension Day!”, and since it is always on a Thursday, it gets less attention than a normal Sunday. Yet, it seems to me, there is no Pentecost without the Ascension. This feast marks the end of Christ’s time as a visible figure on earth. Yet in a real way, it marks the beginning of his ministry with his followers. He begins to work in the lives of believers in a whole new way. This is the point in time where we get the opportunity to do the work for which he prepared us with his life.
In some ways, it may have been easier for the apostles to handle the Ascension than the crucifixion and resurrection. They were prepared for a savior, not someone who would die and leave them behind with their hopes dashed. And the resurrection was almost too hard to believe. Why were those women the ones first trusted with the knowledge that Jesus had risen? Why wasn’t there a clear, obvious and public resurrection? Why was it shrouded in secrecy?
Were Jesus’ other apostles any better than Thomas after the resurrection? Did they not doubt the women? When their friends returned from Emmaus to tell them of their encounter with a risen Christ, they were already talking about Simon’s sighting, but when suddenly Jesus appeared to them, they thought they were seeing a ghost. They were terrified.
In Luke’s gospel, the ascension seems to occur on the same day as the resurrection. The joy the disciples feel upon seeing that Jesus is truly risen gives them the courage to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. This joy gives them the ability to embrace the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples get more time to prepare. Here, the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection. Jesus’ appearances have given them hope and courage. Following these appearances, they can more easily accept the idea that Jesus could ascend into Heaven. He is, after all, the risen Christ. His ascension filled them with joy!! And I think it should fill us with joy as well!
As I read more about the ascension, I discovered that while there are a fairly large number of “mentions” concerning the ascension throughout scripture, most of them are exactly that, small mentions. A single line in a gospel or a prophecy from the Old Testament. Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that has a somewhat detailed description of Jesus’ ascension. The reading from The Acts of the Apostles that we heard Kathryn read this evening is the only other somewhat detailed version of this story. Yet even here, there is much more about the promise of Pentecost than about the ascension. In this reading, after he has finished telling them about the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are told “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
I felt dissatisfied with what I had learned of the ascension in my past incarnation as a Roman Catholic; in my look into scripture; and in much of what I had found in my initial research. I think my dissatisfaction arose from the fact that I had really strong feelings about the importance of the ascension, but I wasn’t really sure why. Then, my wonderful husband reminded me of some reading I had recently done and a new avenue of research presented itself. Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditations have long been part of my morning routine. His recent book, The Universal Christ, was incredibly helpful to me in putting words to understandings I had about the Christ, but seemed unable to express very clearly. So I began looking at Fr. Richard’s writings on the ascension. And there I found the writing that had given me a new understanding of this feast. It was not surprising that I had not remembered exactly where my understanding had come from - this piece on the ascension was written as part of Rohr’s meditations in 2016! Yet it had clearly meant something to me as I still felt its importance five years later.
I was pretty certain that I could not deliver a first sermon on something for which I did not have a personal understanding; something that did not resonate deeply within my own heart. And finally I had found that understanding. Initially, it began with trying to explain to a friend that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. The fully human Jesus who lived among God’s people had all the emotions, doubts and concerns that we have. While he was clearly a far more perfect human than we are, he still felt doubt as he cried out on the cross, “why have you forsaken me?”; and anger as he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple; and even anguish tempered with incredible faith when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark’s gospel, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)
But the Christ is eternal. We hear in the the first chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And on to verse 14, where we hear “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus came into the world just over 2,000 years ago, but the Christ has always been and will always be. And this is where the Ascension comes in. It is through the Ascension that Jesus becomes reunited with the eternal Christ. The risen Christ includes all the spiritual and physical world reconciled within himself. It is through the Ascension that the two worlds become one.
Finally, I was ready to answer two of the questions we use in our Monday Bible Study. This is the way that I am best able to fully embrace scripture. This is how I have taught myself to slow down and internalize the scripture. This helps me to make scripture not just meaningful, but truly proactive in my life. The two most important questions from Bible Study for me are: 1-What do I notice about God in this reading?; and 2-What does this understanding make me want to do and/or be?
What do I notice about God in this reading? First, I notice that Jesus is still teaching and guiding his disciples even as he ascends to heaven. He opens their minds to understand scripture. He reminds them that there is more to come - they will be “clothed in power from on high.” He is preparing them for Pentecost while he loves them through their doubts and fears. This is a loving and patient God who walks with us through our fears and doubts and disbeliefs.
What does God, in these readings, make me want to do and/or be? First, God fills me with hope by reminding me that even in my doubt and fear, I am not alone. That in one God is the creator, redeemer and sustainer and each plays a roll in the growth and maturation of my faith. Knowing that I am not alone gives me the courage to move forward and share the love I have found with others, whether the folks on the margins or our bible study partners or all of you listening this evening.
This God reminds me that, as Bishop Curry says so often, “if it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.” God reminds me that my most important job is to love. Whether it’s my friend, a stranger, someone I admire or someone I definitely do not, it is still my job to love. Being a follower of Christ, I am called to be Jesus to the best of my abilities. I am called to live a life of service, love and joy. And when I strive to do these things, I feel like the person I am meant to be. I feel fulfilled and alive. My heart sings. The risen and ascended Christ has given me the hope and courage to stand before you and express, to the best of my ability, the love and joy that comes to me in being his hands and feet and heart on earth.
You, of course, will have your own understandings of this wonderful feast. And I encourage you to share them with one another or even with me, if you wish. I have often found in our weekly Bible Study, that in the sharing, our understanding becomes broader and better. We become more like Christ in our acceptance and love. May this be so for all of us.
In closing, I like to share a poem with you from Malcolm Guite:
Sonnet for Ascension
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings, Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness, Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight, Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed, Which all creation waits to see revealed.
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