May 13, 2018: Are We There Yet? by Rev. Beth Hayward (Acts 1: 1-11)

Fifty days after Easter the bible gets round to dealing with the body, the resurrected body. I won’t make you raise your hands but I’m guessing this one isn’t so familiar to many of us. That said, you may be interested to learn that the ascension of Jesus is mentioned no less than seven times in scripture. The details vary but there’s a common thread of Jesus telling those gathered that the Holy Spirit will come and fill them, it’s like a final blessing before he ascends into the clouds. The disciples look on, gazes firmly fixed skyward, filled with wonder until some angels appear and draw their attention back to earth.

The disciples, and an ever-widening circle, had continuing experiences of the strange ongoing presence of Jesus. They thought he was gone; but in some way he was still with them. Some believed they saw him walking down the road. Mary was one who came running to tell the others that she had met him in the garden. And there were more times. More and more of the followers experienced Jesus in and around Jerusalem. They ate with him; they talked with him.

Let me just pause here. You would think that resurrection would inspire some sort of revival tour, like Abba this summer, performing together after all these years. You’d think resurrection would have the hype of a royal baby and royal wedding combined, complete with over priced made in China tacky souvenirs. Surely he would have at least offered a Sermon on the Mount reprise, one last loaves and fishes miracle. It’s curious isn’t it; fifty days of resurrection and all he did, at least all that anyone thought to remember, were the meals and the conversations.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson, my go to literary guru this month, tells a story in her 1980 novel Housekeeping about Ruthie and her sister Lucille. Together they would rifle through their grandmother’s chest of drawers. There in the bottom drawer was a collection of apparently random things, laid out in an eerily methodical way. The girls had no context for the balls of twine and Christmas candles. No stories from grandma to explain the two brass buttons carefully placed in the shot glass, the faded wax angels that smelled of bayberry, no stories to accompany the shoe box of old photos, filled with people and places of which they knew nothing but who were clearly important.

My grandmother had a cedar chest like that, filled with tatted handkerchiefs and more buttons than a kid could count. I had many years to ask my Nana about the contents of her special box but never did, it was enough to gingerly touch and smell and wonder at the stories held there. It never occurred to me to ask, because in a place deeper than words, I just knew that these ordinary bits were part of her story and therefore part of mine.

Robinson writes about the sisters and the bottom drawer saying “Ascension seemed at such times to be a natural law…”[1] Suggesting perhaps that the ordinary bits of life are raised to a place of importance when we stop to wonder a bit. She asks

…why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?[2]

What are all these fragments for if not to be knit up finally? Theologian Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “I do not know why it is that we remember so much about some of the small decisions of our lives and so little about most of the great ones.”[3]

The small things of life knit together are perhaps life itself, the place where meaning and memory make way for what’s next. I don’t know about you but I rarely circle back round the big decisions I’ve made. For me it’s the shame in the pit of my stomach for sharp words slipped too quickly from my lips that lingers, it’s the first time someone took me to listen to live jazz music, the mild spring afternoon when I sat in the moist earth with a toddler and preschooler planting far more pansies than was reasonable given my circumstance. Those are the stories that linger, the ones that I divine for meaning again and again, the ones I hold as sacred.

Fifty days on and all that ordinary culminates in this awe filled moment, leaving the disciples with their heads turned skyward and angels descending, like angels do, reminding them all to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid when the prosaic melds into the profound, when your ordinary becomes momentarily illuminated with the extraordinary. Don’t be afraid when you realise that the possibilities of a lifetime are born in the ordinary shame filled, wonder-filled, tender, everyday experiences of life. Don’t be afraid when we see a glimpse of Christ alive in this world.

This isn’t a story about could it really happen that way? Ascension, like resurrection and virgin births and worlds created in seven days was never intended as a just so story. Remember Rudyard Kipling? His bedtime story series called Just So Stories, offering fantastical explanations for all sorts of phenomenon. Like How the Camel Got his Hump and How the Leopard Got His Spots? Bible stories are not fantastical explanations, any more than they are meant to replace scientific inquiry. They are meant for a completely other purpose, one that has been largely lost over the past several centuries. They are the wanderings of the hearts of real people. They are to inspire awe and wonder, to teach us how to hold the tension of the spiritual and material, to change hearts and lives, to be compelling enough to catch your breath if even for just a moment. Biblical stories are first and foremost testimonies.

I attended a lecture this week, a day-long lecture entitled “Hawking, Dawkins and Artificial Intelligence: Communicating Jesus in a scientific world. Professor David Wilkinson who holds a PhD. in both astronomy and theology proposed that religion has been sidelined, the Christian faith in particular, sidelined by a claim of scientists like Dawkins that insist science has won. He calls it the Conflict Model and suggests that science and religion are perpetually at odds. Think Dawkins, verses the fundamentalist Christian. He thinks this conflict model doesn’t serve us and in fact is not representative of where most of us are.

Marilynne Robinson echoes Wilkinson’s claim saying:

Religion began to be regarded as a crude explanatory system, an attempt to do what science actually could do, that is account for the origins and the workings of things. And so on these grounds, religion came to be treated as though it had been discredited by science. Scripture, the Church Fathers, and classical theology, have far more interests, yet Christianity has been earnestly and ineptly defended by some as if it really were battling science for the same terrain, as if it really were a collection of just-so stories, all along, rather than the body of history, poetry, ethical instruction and reflection, and metaphysics as well, that had deeply informed, dignified and beautified Western Civilization for so many centuries.[4]

It used to be when science was born back in the aftermath of the Reformation that the two lived more comfortably together. It was in many ways the wonder at God’s creation that led to scientific inquiry in the first place.

You may want to spend some time sorting out whether the ascension could have really happened that way. I’m told there is some suggestion from an astrophysics perspective that this is not the stuff of fairy tales. But this is not the starting place. It’s more fundamental, more basic than that.

I’ve been asked recently whether I might consider doing a bit more teaching in my preaching, you know – tell me how to be a Christian. I think it’s a valid request, an honest longing, a good challenge for me – you can appreciate that I want to be continually growing in my craft. I want to be responsive to your needs and in some small way helpful in the deepening of your spiritual practice. I wish the bible could be transformed into a self-help book, a twelve easy steps to a being a Christian. I suppose today if I were to set out to teach us anything it would be to begin with by telling your story. The post Easter stories are all testimony, someone remembering to tell how Jesus was experienced and made known to people.

As teacher Philip Clayton urges:  “Whenever you are confused about what the word theology might mean, just go back to this core idea of reciting the narrative of your life before God…”[5]

Clayton says further that:

When we are called upon to say who we are, we begin, if we are wise by telling our story. When we are asked what we stand for, we begin by describing the heritage that has formed us. We tell our story not to boast, though sometimes it makes us proud, not to reject it, though sometimes it causes us shame. We tell of our heritage because it is ours.”

Obviously testimony is a starting place in what it means to be Christian but it is the starting place. Being able to name my real life experience of the holy, of Jesus showing up in all sorts of unexpected places and having the eyes to see, that’s today’s lesson. That’s a good place to begin. And like those in the story today if you find yourself looking into the sky dreaming of the way it used to be or the way you wished it was, pull back your gaze for a bit, and look into the eye of all your relations and tell the stories of Jesus , the holy, Spirit, at work in your life!

Eventually, Clayton reminds us, you will need to be able to explain at least to yourself why you do what you do, how those stories of knowing the presence of the holy, how your experience of God, however you define that, is at work in the world, impacts what you do and how you live your life. Eventually: “one needs to be able to say why she goes to a church that is ‘open and affirming,… or why he thinks that working out or becoming vegetarian is an important part of his Christian discipleship. The committee has to say why it voted give monies to Rainbow Refugee rather than any other helping group.[6] Eventually we dig deeper and the fragments of our stories are knit up into the fabric of our lives and we bring to consciousness in each moment all that has led us here and it informs our response to all sorts of situations. But for today we pause for a moment and we acknowledge that we are not there yet.

I don’t’ know what all the resurrected Jesus did. But we do have some of the testimony of those who were there. Mary says I knew it was him, when he called my name, others knew him in the breaking of the bread. Others said it was when the angels came close and drew our gaze back earth.

This week the church calendar slips from the season of Easter into the season of Ordinary time. What better place to begin testifying to the ways you have known Jesus in your ordinary life, in the breaking of bread, in hearing your name whispered and being known as if for the first time, in the presence of those who help you to keep your gaze on what is before you, made known in the melody of song or in the fragments of your life. Amen

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, Picador Press, 2004.

[2] ibid

[3] Fred Buechner, The Sacred Journey, Harper & Row, 1982. pp. 102-184.

 

[4] Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?, McLelland & Stewart, 2018. p257

[5] Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology: for church and society, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2010.

[6] This paragraph is a weaving together of the words of Philip Clayton and me. See footnote above.