Ascension Sunday (May 8, 2016)
Holy Wisdom Monastery
As I listened to David McKee’s homily last Sunday, I was struck by how different what I want to say today is. I think it’s good to have two such different homilies back-to back, because it brings out the two sides of Christian faith and life—the contemplative and the active. In last week’s homily David reflected on the contemplative side. My reflections today will emphasize more the active side.
Some people are troubled by the picture of a three story universe reflected in the portrayal of Jesus rising up to heaven. This is a problem, because we know that this is not the way the world is made. But it need not trouble us today, because it’s just a reflection of the way first century people saw their world and is irrelevant to Luke’s message in these readings.
Notice the way Luke frames the Ascension story in Acts. He begins by referring to his earlier book, the Gospel. “In the first book” he says, “I wrote about all Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day he was taken up into heaven.” He ends the account similarly, with the men in white saying to the disciples, “Why are you gazing up into heaven when Jesus just told you that you are to be his witnesses here on the earth?” By framing the Ascension story this way Luke directs our gaze away from the ascending Jesus and heaven back to earthly mission of Jesus of Nazareth, the un-credentialed, itinerant Galilean carpenter who walked from village to village spreading the message that the reign of God was breaking into world, turning it upside down.
These readings focus on three things about Jesus’ earthly mission–first its power, second its public dimension and third that Jesus’ mission has now become the mission of His community. At the Ascension Jesus passes the baton to his followers and each generation of followers passes it to the next. Now it’s come to us. These readings also make it clear that Jesus not only passes his mission on to the community. He passes on the power to accomplish it as well and sends the community to the far corners of the world with his message. The only appropriate response is to open ourselves to this power and take up this mission.
This is not easy, because it means leaving the safety of our religious bases and going out into the world as sheep amid wolves. It means claiming the world for God and being harbingers of the reign of God on earth—although we may not always do this using religious language. It means that we must expect and be prepared for resistance, opposition, and danger, because claiming the world for God brings us up against powerful forces that claim the world belongs to them, some of which hold values and embrace policies totally opposed to those of the Reign of God. We see these forces in action every time we read about what’s going on in the world, but they seem to be especially on display in this election year cycle.
Jesus himself warned us of the dangers we might face as his witnesses in the world and the experiences of his followers reinforce his warning. Last month we commemorated the deaths of Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom were killed because they opened themselves to the power of God and went out to claim the world for God. Jesuit war resister Daniel Berrigan, whose death we remembered last week in Assembly, is another example. Though not killed for his witness, he certainly suffered for it. He was ostracized, persecuted and imprisoned. And there’s 83 year Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who just last month was arrested with a number of other religious leaders for demonstrating on behalf of the restoration of the Voting Rights Act at the U. S. Capitol.
There are many other less well known followers of Jesus who have suffered for taking up his call to claim the world for God. I think of the Huguenot famers from the little village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in Southeastern France. These farmers and their pastor, Andre Trocme, put their lives on the line by hiding and saving more than 5000 thousand Jews during the Second World War. When they were hailed as heroes, they were perplexed. They thought they were just being Christians. Their story is told in the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and was also the subject of a moving PBS documentary titled Weapons of the Spirit produced by Jewish journalist, Pierre Sauvage. His parents had been saved by these French farmers and he had been born in le Chambon. He returned, a grown man, to meet and embrace the old farmers who had saved him and to make this beautiful documentary.
And there are witnesses like this right here in our midst. I think of my friend from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison who has been fined or put in jail several times for her actions at Volk Field National Guard Base protesting Drone warfare or of my nun friend at Edgewood College arrested for protesting at the School of the Americas in Ft. Bennings, Georgia, or my Dominican priest friend who was arrested during an Easter Service at Ellsworth Airforce Base in South Dakota for crossing a line in a procession carrying Easter lilies as gifts to the base chapel. I also think of my friends in Steubenville, Ohio, the location of my first parish. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement we participated in marches, sit-ins and prayer vigils to confront the racism of our community and we felt or thought we felt the power of God moving among and within us. This behavior earned us public disapproval and some pretty scary threats.
Let me conclude this homily by clarifying its purpose. Its purpose is to lift up and reflect on the central message of today’s readings from Acts and Luke. These readings remind us that, as followers of Jesus, we are called not to gaze up into heaven but to engage here on the earth and not just to create our own alternative communities of love and light and nurture one another in these communities, although such communities are absolutely necessary for refuge and nurture on our dangerous journey. But we are also called to go into the world and boldly claim it for God. I shared some stories of people who have taken up this mission not because I think we need to do what they did or are doing. Each of us has to discern in specific and concrete situations what public witness means for her or him. But these readings won’t let us off the hook. Whenever we hear or read them they remind us of our calling to be public witnesses to the Reign of God on earth and challenge us to ask ourselves how we responding to this call.
The General Intercessions
Let us open our hearts and minds to God in prayer
As we continue to celebrate Jesus’ Easter victory, may we open ourselves to the power of the Spirit and, filled with that power, go courageously into the world to witness boldly to the coming Reign of God in the world, let us pray to God!
As we the people of the United States prepare to select our national leaders, may we be led to choose men and women who will care for Mother Earth and devote themselves to the service of justice, peace and truth, let us pray to God.
As the Feast of Pentecost approaches, may the Holy Spirit fill the Church throughout the world with courage to take up Jesus’ mission and strengthen it to endure whatever suffering it experiences for its faithfulness to this mission. Let us pray to God.
FOR WHAT ELSE SHALL WE PRAY?
Intentions from the Assembly
NOW YOU ARE ALL INVITED TO PRAY FOR ANYONE YOU WISH, EITHER ALOUD OF SILENTLY
Time for Assembly prayers
LET US CONCLUDE THESE INTERCESSIONS WITH THE PRAYERS REQUESTED IN OUR BOOK OF INTENTIONS
LOVING GOD, WE OFFER THESE PRAYERS AND ALL OUR OTHER NEEDS AND LONGINGS TO YOU IN CONFIDENCE, KNOWING THAT YOU ARE GRACIOUS AND LOVER OF ALL YOU HAVE MADE.