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May 23, 2004 (Ascension Sunday)—“Look, Up In the Sky”

Rev. Robert L. Morley

I was honored when Pastor Barber asked me to preach in his absence today. I know that pastors don't hand over their pulpits lightly and especially when there are people on staff eminently qualified to do the preaching. So, I eagerly accepted the invitation and rushed off to my lectionary calendar to look up the text for today. Of course we double checked to make sure our calendars matched since mine is in the Methodist tradition, but of course they did--that's why the call it the common lectionary.

But I couldn't help but notice on my Methodist calendar that tomorrow is Aldersgate Day. That probably won't mean much to you but it marks a significant turning point in the life of John Wesley--an event that took place in London on Aldersgate Street in 1732. You see, we Methodists hold John Wesley in a certain patriarchal status as you Lutherans do Martin Luther. And the two men have much in common. They both changed the world in which they lived--not just religion but also politics and economics, especially as they related to the poor. They were both scholars. They both traveled extensively, and they both had unhappy relationships with their wives. I don't know if there is a correlation between those last two facts and, if so, which was the cause and which the effect. And I choose not to speculate here.

Another common feature of Wesley and Luther is that neither intended to start a new church institution, only to reform the old one--Luther the Roman Catholic Church and Wesley the Church of England. And neither imagined that churches would come into existence that would hold them in such high esteem. In fact, they would be embarrassed--it would be their earnest desire for all who followed to become dedicated disciples of Jesus the Christ, not Wesley or Luther. And so we are--we admire our founders and worship our Lord--we honor one and follow the other. So, no matter what's on our respective calendars regarding the lives of our patriarchs, it all takes a secondary position to the events in the life of Jesus whom we call "Lord."

And this is Ascension Sunday; one of the stranger stories in the New Testament when you think of it--at least the visual imagery. You have Jesus floating off into the clouds like Mary Poppins and all the disciples staring off into the air trying to catch the very last glimpse of him. "Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane?" No, it's Jesus going to take his place at the right hand of God. At least that's what it says in the creeds.

I was pastor of a church in San Diego once and there was a Christian drama group in our neighborhood. Most of what they did was very conservative/evangelical so it was with a bit of surprise that I noticed their play bill one year included "Jesus Christ, Superstar." I went to the production. As it turned out they couldn't actually let the play be what it was, the story as seen from the perspective of Judas; they had to fix it. So they added to the original script not only a resurrection but an ascension. You have to visualize the staging. When Jesus finished his farewell speech center stage, he began to rise on some sort of hydraulic lift mechanism. In order to obscure the apparatus, they had fireworks shooting out the bottom of the platform. So Jesus looked rather like an Atlas rocket being launched from Vandenberg. All the while his admiring disciples, minus Judas, took up the familiar theme: "Jesus Christ, Superstar--we know that you're who you say you are."

But no matter how difficult it is to stage or how clumsy the visual images may be, we must acknowledge that the ascension event is an integral part of the whole redemption drama that began with the incarnation, the healing/teaching ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection events. This was not just an add-on for the sake of a convenient exit.

Remember in the Gospel of John how Jesus said to Mary, "Don't hold me, I have not yet ascended to my Father." The job isn't done yet; there is another act to complete, so "don't hold me up, Mary!" I have a friend with a condition that requires him to have a companion dog--the dog's name is Sam. Sam has a sign on his back that says, "Don't pet me, I'm working." It was something like that that Jesus said to Mary--"No time for hugging, I have worked to do." What work? In the same Gospel he told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them. He is going to get everything set up for their arrival, then come back and get them in the final act of the cosmic drama of redemption, the consummation of all things, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. For me the most poignant part of this story which is our text for today is that last statement made by the angel: "What are you guys doing staring off into heaven?" Yes, Jesus has work to do before the final event, but so do you.

That's how the Christian drama group in San Diego ended the story--everyone staring off into heaven with holy glows on their faces. Brothers and sisters, there are far too many Christians staring off longingly into heaven while evil thrives in the world in which we live. We have work to do too! While Jesus is getting heaven ready for us, we are supposed to be getting the earth ready for him! And it needs a lot of work. And if recent history has shown us anything it has confirmed that Americanism isn't going to do the trick. Exporting our brand of democracy around the world by force of arms has done nothing more than perpetuated the cycle of violence and retribution. The alternative plan of attack is well defined in Scripture--the weapon is love. A weapon of mass reconciliation, if you please. And the blueprint we are working from is perfectly clear; shall I remind you of it? "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not raise up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. The lion and the calf will lie down together. The little child will pay over the hole of the poisonous snake. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord."

Maybe the reason Jesus is taking so long coming back is that we are taking so long getting the place ready. The blueprint calls for a world absent of weapons of war and where every child can play and grow in complete safety. We have a ways to go, folks. Let's not be staring off into the sky or down at our navels. Let's get started reshaping some swords into usable tools for the peaceable Kingdom and rescuing children at risk. So when the Lord comes, he won't find us in crisp, dry-cleaned white robs staring upward with angelic expressions, but in our work clothes stained with blood, sweat and tears from working to turn this violent and dangerous world into the image of the Kingdom of God. That is our joyous task: to see to it that when Jesus returns in the clouds as he promised he will come with a smile to see that his people have been hard at work getting the place ready for his coming, especially those Lutherans in Honolulu, and that one renegade Methodist.


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